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The Straight Story

Directed by David Lynch

The Straight Story is based on the true story of 73 year-old Alvin Straight who, determined to patch things up with the ailing elder brother he hadn’t spoken to in ten years, made the three hundred mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mt Zion, Wisconsin, using an unconventional mode of transport: his lawnmower.
In the small, rural community of Laurens in the American midwest, widower Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) lives with Rose (Sissy Spacek), his grown daughter, who seems ‘slow’, but has ‘a mind like a bear trap’. Alvin walks with a cane and when we first met him, has just taken a heavy fall on his kitchen floor. His doctor scolds him for his poor diet and general disregard for his health, but Alvin valiantly refuses any tests, operations, or the suggestion that he use a walker to get around from now on. The most he accepts is a second cane.




Then Rose receives a call telling her that Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), the 76 year-old brother Alvin fell out with years ago, has suffered a stroke. The two old men have neither seen not spoken to one another in a decade, but Alvin begins to reflect on his recent fall, his brother’s stroke and all the things that have passed between them, and determines to travel to Wisconsin to see Lyle again. ‘Nobody knows you or what you are, better than a brother your own age.’ Although his eyesight is poor and he hasn’t got much money, Alvin can’t stomach the thought of taking the bus, since it means being chauffeured around by someone else. So he comes up with a better idea: he’ll drive himself, on his lawnmower.
Under the worried gaze of Rose, the sceptical scrutiny of a nosy neighbour and the doubtful glances of the locals down at Ace Hardware, Alvin prepares for his journey. To his daughter’s dismay, he hits the road with a makeshift trailer full of vital supplies: gasoline, coffee, insect repellent, Swisher Sweets and cold hot dogs.
En route, Alvin meets an eclectic assortment of people, including a priest, a pack of bicycle marathoners, a runaway teenage hitchhiker, fellow veterans of WW2, a pair of bickering identical twin mechanics who fix his machine, and a woman who keeps accidentally running into deer on the highway.
What we have here is a journey across the Heartland, and into the heart. This naturally entails Lynch the auteur playing with and extending his own persona. For while the first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie have some characteristic Lynch trademarks (or maybe we only interpret them as such because we know it’s a Lynch movie), like the quiet air of foreboding and impending menace in small town America, and the ambivalence which lends a sinister and cynical doubleness to much of the dialogue, this quickly gives way to situations where only univocal readings are possible, and characters for once say what they mean, and mean what they say. Rather than using this vehicle as an opportunity for some ‘Let’s all laugh at the hicks from the sticks’ satire and dark humour, we are instead invited to enter into and care about Alvin’s life, his triumphs and failures, his regrets and disappointments, and those of the folks he meets along the way. It is as though Thomas Pynchon had written a story in the style of Raymond Carver, but the graft is successful, not a fake or a parody, but an authentic assimilation. All the visual flair is still there, the colour-coding, the Hopperesque interiors, an exterior shot of a fire drill with a burning house taking place right next to a Synagogue. But now the surreal juxtapositions are fleeting, understated. The only overtly traditional ‘Lynchian’ touch is the hysterical woman driver with the unfortunate penchant for turning wildlife into roadkill. Particularly memorable for me on one viewing is the extended portrait-painterly shot of four of Alvin’s old-timer neighbours in Ace Hardware: the camera lingers on this tableau vivant, but with sympathy rather than menace.
Just as Lynch followed the darkness of Blue Velvet with the more upbeat Wild at Heart (well, it was a romance with a happy ending), so now after what was arguably his most disturbing and formally ambitious creation, Lost Highway, we get the pointed contrast of the far gentler and, eh, straightforward The Straight Story. While the road in Lost Highway often seemed like a fast route into madness, here it provides bright landscapes, a genial leading character and helpful people who aren’t going to do him a bad turn, or give him a bum steer. But perhaps the real counterpoint is with Wild at Heart itself, The Straight Story an oldster road movie of one old man going to visit another representing an elderly version of the two young lovers on the run scenario. This is even signalled by the reappearance from the earlier movie of those fine yellow lines, that stretched out along the yellow brick road. ‘What’s the worst thing about being old?’ Alvin is asked at one point, and replies, ‘Remembering when you were young.’
At a time when 40% of American families spend their lives’ savings on a final illness, and a book like Death Comes for Peter Pan by Joan Brady, a modern update of Orwell’s How The Poor Die, demonstrates the bureaucratic nightmare of the American health care system, where patients can lose their rights to a bed because they are too sick for “rehabilitation” but not yet sick enough for a hospice, and so are farmed out to die in the scandalous conditions of nursing homes where the dying are left without nursing care or adequate pain relief, all because there is so much money to be made by private contractors (a model which is already becoming established in Ireland) Alvin’s odyssey must represent some sort of triumph of the human spirit.
Let me give it to you straight: there is a feeling abroad in some quarters that David Lynch is what we, in Ye Olde Film Critics’ Guild, refer to as ‘a pretentious wanker’. But from where I’m standing, he looks like one of the few truly independent American filmmakers, with a brain, an imagination, the balls to keep ploughing his own furrow and do something different regardless of the pressures imposed by popular taste, and, as is often forgotten simply because he is no sentimentalist, a heart. This is a poignant film, which in years to come may well rival Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas feel-good movie (in a bemusing twist, Disney have even picked it up for release in the States). A straight story, and a true one, straight from a true heart.

First published in Film Ireland









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