Published October 1, 1999
Based on real people and real events which took place in 1994, The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch and written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, is bad in the way that the old Disney movies were bad instead of being bad in the way that the new Disney movies are bad — which is to say it is almost good. In fact, it is as good as David Lynch can make it, which alone would make it worth seeing in my book. And perhaps the best thing about it is that it can be taken as a kind of bookend to Lynch’s Blue Velvet of the 1980s, a movie which saw American small- town life as a thin façade of respectability covering up a seething cauldron of violence, lust and sexual perversion. The Straight Story makes some amends for this slur upon the American heartland by showing people along the 260 mile route between Laurens, Iowa (pronounced “Ioway” here), and Mt Zion, Wisconsin, as basically good and decent and admirable folk.
The most good and decent and admirable of them all is the 73 year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) of Laurens, who also seems to bring these qualities out in the people he meets. Receiving word that his estranged brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), in Mt. Zion has had a stroke, he determines to go visit him in spite of his having no driver’s license, nor any vehicle to travel in if he did have one, save an old riding lawnmower. But “I got to see Lyle — I know you understand,” he says to his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), with whom he lives. Rose, who has a speech handicap and makes birdhouses for sale down at the hardware store, rather amazingly does. Or at least she knows the hopelessness of trying to argue the old man out of his purpose. Pulling behind the mower a trailer filled with his supplies for the journey (mainly consisting of packaged luncheon meat and hot dogs) he sets out for Mount Zion.
His old codger friends, looking out the window as he goes, say to one another that, “He’ll never get as far as the Grotto” five miles down the road — and he doesn’t. The decrepit old mower quits on him and he is forced to buy another, a 1966 model John Deere which has been kept up by the local dealer in farm machinery. Lynch’s frustration of our expectations in this way is nicely complimented by a coda in which Alvin, back home, marches through the kitchen carrying a shotgun while Rose is talking to a neighbor. They stop in mid-conversation while another set of expectations, born of our experience with Mr Lynch, are allowed to arise. “What’s your dad doin’ with that gun?” says the neighbor
“I don’t know,” says Rose.
Cut to old Alvin taking careful aim at the old, broken-down mower and blowing it to kingdom come.
This parody of violence in the heartland is a neat reversal of the now-familiar irony in Hollywood’s (and Lynch’s own) treatment of same over the last thirty years. It fits together perfectly with the nicely observed comedy of small-town conversation. “What you need that grabber for, Alvin” says nosy Sig, one of the old codgers who are Alvin’s friends, as he negotiates with a shop-keeper for the item in question.
“To grab things,” says Alvin with as much resentment as he ever shows about anything. This kind of homely drollery even allows Lynch to get away with moments like that in which father and daughter together look up at the sky the night before he leaves and observe that “The sky is sure full of stars tonight.”
I thought up to this point in the film that it was going to be unexpectedly wonderful. One of the greats. But soon after Alvin gets on the road for good we begin to feel the pressure of the script’s tone of relentless uplift, which begins to sound a bit false and manipulative at about the time, very early in his journey, when Alvin encounters a pregnant, unmarried girl running away from home and persuades her to go back by preaching the virtues of family. He tells her about Rose’s deep pain at having had her children taken away from her by social services when one of them was injured in a fire. He tells her that he and his late wife had 14 children — “Seven of ’em made it” — and used to “play a game” by asking them to break a stick, which was easy, and then to break a bundle of sticks, which was not. “That bundle’s family,” he told them. The next morning the girl is gone, but she leaves by way of thanks — a bundle of sticks.
A little over the top? Well, I thought so. But the schmaltz, much assisted by Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative, country-influenced score, is at least honest schmaltz, and the ending can hardly fail to squeeze a tear from even the most jaded movie-goer or aesthetically fastidious movie critic. Hats off to Disney, and of course the ageing bad boy Lynch, for getting one right.