Friday, November 5, 2010

The Straight Story

I am convinced that director David Lynch soaks his contacts in a solution of LSD every night before bed.  Let's be honest, if you think there is any sane or sober way to completely explain Mulholland Drive, you're probably using the same "saline" solution.  A few months back, someone reminded me on Facebook that Lynch also directed The Straight Story, which is about as un-Lynchian of a project as you can imagine.  How un-Lynchian is it?  For starters, it was released by Disney.  And it was rated G.  Even more surprising, this film is based on a true story.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is an old man, and he looks it.  After enduring a LifeCall-worthy event, Alvin has to visit the doctor.  Well, he doesn't have to, he's a stubborn old mule that will doubtlessly do things his way until the moment he keels over, but he chooses to see the doctor to make his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), feel better.  In the office, Alvin refuses to undress, have any tests done, or have any X-rays taken.  I can't wait to become an old curmudgeon like him.  However, I would have a Biff cane, complete with a brass fist for knocking on McFly's head.  The (exasperated) doctor makes some educated guesses about Alvin's condition; he needs hip surgery to stand without the use of two canes (because Alvin refuses to have a walker), is losing his eyesight as a side-effect of diabetes, and is probably in the early stages of emphysema.  He is a pretty frail old man, and the doctor clearly doesn't expect Alvin to have much life left in him.  Shortly after his doctor's visit, Alvin gets a phone call that his brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke.  The two men have not spoken in over ten years, which gets Alvin to thinking.  Deciding that now is the time to bury the hatchet, Alvin plans to travel the 240 miles from his home in Iowa to his brother's in Wisconsin.  Only, thanks to his eyesight and hips, he doesn't have a driver's license.  Refusing the aid of his daughter and several others, Alvin comes up with an unusual solution to his problem.  He decides to ride his lawnmower to Wisconsin.  Of course he does.

On the surface, this seems like an odd choice for David Lynch to direct.  It is, but you can see his touch, if you know where to look.  Lynch has always had a talent for capturing wonderful scenery and holding long shots for effect, and that talent is on display here.  Lynch really brings out the beauty and vastness of the Great Plains with his cinematography.  Of course, he's too weird to play even a "straight story" completely straight; a good number of the supporting cast are kooky and have that bizarre awkward-acting quality that Lynch encourages in his actors.  Of course, the subject matter is pretty weird, too, if you think about it.  Lynch often makes movies about subversion of some type or another; is there anything more subversive than a person choosing to do things their way, no matter how many better options are available?

Most of the supporting cast is, like I mentioned, kind of awkward (deer lady, I'm talking to you), but Sissy Spacek is surprisingly effective as Straight's handicapped daughter.  There aren't many other noteworthy actors in the movie (Chris' brothers, Kevin and John P. Farley, and Harry Dean Stanton have bit parts), so the biggest responsibility for this film's quality rests on the shoulders of Richard Farnsworth.  He does a fantastic job.  He has great nonverbal acting skills and his subtle choices, like the way his eyes dart when he's nervous, really breathe life into his character.  Alvin Straight is a character that could be played as overly stubborn or idiotic, Farnsworth's portrayal is honest and endearing, and his Oscar nomination was well-deserved.  I would be making a mistake if I didn't point out how adorably the elderly are shown in this movie; the interactions between senior citizens are funny because they're true, and they are some of the most realistic portrayals of this age group I have ever seen on the big screen.

This is a slow movie.  I know that, sometimes, I am just not in the mood to see a slowly-paced film, so I just wanted to issue that caution.  The film's pace was not an issue for me, though.  What was an issue was the occasional over-dramatic conversations (how long have you known each other, and you say that?) and some of the goofy supporting cast.  Even those things don't diminish how much I enjoyed watching this.  This is a movie that just feels...I don't know, humble and wholesome seem like inadequate terms.  It is an emotional movie, one that speaks to some very basic things that everyone has in common, and the movie comes across as being so honest and unpretentious that it's disarming to watch.  It's no It's a Wonderful Life (because it's less cheesy), but it's playing the same ballgame.  It is a simple story, but it is so good at what it does, which is warm the cockles of your heart.  If your cockles get too warm, though, you might want to have a doctor check that out. 

...and, because nobody demanded it, here's the classic LifeCall commercial from the 80s.

I reviewed this movie because somebody requested it.  A long time ago.  But, better late than never.


  1. joel again.
    Remember when Mamet directed "The Winslow Boy"? It was also rated "G" and I saw it at a theater with a bunch of children whose stupid parents did not read up on the plot.

    Spacek was really good in this and I didn't mind the slow pace. I did mind the lack of old man nudity though.

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