In David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated film The Straight Story the director returns to playing as straight as he did with The Elephant Man, telling a story without any of the excursions to the edge of sanity that mark most of his work. And in doing so, he produces a film of warmth and variety.
Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who is getting on and has a dicky hip, lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Iowa. He hears his brother in Wisconsin is dying and is determined to see him again. The problem is his eyes are too bad to drive and Rose is a little simple and can’t be trusted behind the wheel. He can’t afford the air fare but what he does have is a tractor-mower. And so, with a trailer behind him, he sets off on the 300-mile journey just above walking pace… The film is about those he meets along the way: a runaway girl, a war veteran in a bar with whom he swaps hidden secrets, a woman who’s run down 14 deer in seven weeks (“… and I have to take this road”); and as one of the centrepoints of the film, a stopover after an accident with ex-mower salesman Danny Riordan (James Cada). Each encounter reveals more about Alvin as well as offering a Lynchian insight into rural America’s communities and people. And, at the end, when he reaches brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), Lynch again confounds expectations with an ending that is truthful rather than sentimental.
Farnsworth, Oscar-nominated for his role, was 79 and fits the part like a glove, his slowness of speech adding weight to his carefully considered words and a face, as one critic wrote, “like a wrinkled [wallet] he’d paid good money for and expects to see him out”. He started out a stuntman in westerns before moving into acting and was Oscar-nominated in 1979 for Comes a Horseman.
The Straight Story brought him to a whole new audience but sadly a few years later, in constant pain from terminal cancer, he took his own life. While he carries the film, the surrounding cast, particularly Spacek and Cada, are all perfect as are even minor characters (watch the un-credited barman when the two veterans meet). And award-winning cameraman Freddie Francis catches the lush vastness of the country Alvin passes through with beautifully framed work, including a crane shot that rises from Alvin’s progress, sweeps up to the sky and then gracefully down, to reveal Alvin about a yard further on, a beautiful visual joke that encapsulates the quality of the film.
USA / 1999
Director: David Lynch
Writers: John Roach, Mary Sweeney
Cast: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, James Cada, Jennifer Edwards, John Farley, Harry Dean Stanton