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The Straight Story
"The Straight Story' - what's that?" I can hear many of you ask. Well, it is a warm, quiet movie from 1999. Here is my review. If it piques your interest, TCM occasionally shows it or go surfing, streaming, whatever the term is.
This film about an ordinary man doing a rather extraordinary thing is low key, quiet and very beautiful. I can’t recall the last film I saw that expressed this level of tenderness and affection from beginning to end. Gentle, graceful and calm, The Straight Story generates the kind of pleasure that I thought had disappeared from American film.
The story – such as it is – involves 76 year old proud and stubborn Alvin Straight’s decision to travel several hundred miles to see his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), from whom he has been estranged for a decade. Alvin can’t afford to travel by conventional means, and he can’t drive because his license has been revoked due to his poor eyesight and other health problems. So he sets off from his Iowa home to Wisconsin on the only machine he’s legally allowed to operate: his 1966 John Deere lawn tractor mower, which putters along the highway at less than 10 mph. What follows is a topsy-turvy road movie wherein the central character is not transformed. Instead it is Alvin who transforms the road and the people he interacts with – not in an overtly dramatic, earth-shattering way, but in a quietly affecting one.
Richard Farnsworth, a 78-year old veteran Hollywood stunt man, gives a most remarkable and Oscar-worthy performance as Alvin. You might say that he provides a “presence” more than a performance. His Alvin is a man of few words, plain spoken, kind without being smarmy and quiet in his stubborn insistence on doing things his own way. Farnsworth has eyes as big and chlorine-blue as swimming pools and sometimes the wind makes them leak a little. He is obviously moved by the kindness of strangers and the quiet, religious magnitude of his own pilgrimage. There are no scenery-chewing moments of intense histrionics for Farnsworth to latch onto. He allows us in, but never fully lets down Alvin’s guard. In other words, it’s an honest portrayal of this kind of man. Great credit is due to both Farnsworth and the director David Lynch for avoiding the trap of having him metamorphose into a movie “character,” such as the proverbial Hollywood kind-but-feisty-old-fogy. Farnsworth is one of very few actors I’ve ever seen whose pensive silences and long drags of contemplative staring made me want to know what he’s thinking about. I wanted to know this man and to befriend him.
Farnsworth came out of retirement to make this film and it is his movie, but the supporting cast is perfectly plain and plainly perfect. They look and sound and act like unremarkable, ordinary people. And yet they are never dull. Sissy Spacek is not just good, she is mesmerizing as Alvin’s slightly disabled daughter, Rose, with whom he shares his house. Her scenes are relatively few, but they add a layer of meaning that resonates on several levels. I do not know why she did not get more attention for this exceptional portrayal which was worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
But the folks that Alvin meets on his odyssey also help make this film. There is the young pregnant runaway that he befriends and counsels one starry night. There is the unfortunate hysterical lady who seemingly hits and kills a deer a week on the open highway. And there is also the kind man who takes him in for a night and offers, unsuccessfully, to drive him to his brother’s place and there is the fellow World War II veteran with whom he shares war tales. Each of these characters enriches this exceptional movie.
Most things move slowly in The Straight Story. The rain that falls down the side of the Straight house, the spaces between Rose’s halting manner of speaking, Alvin’s walk, and the handsome languid photography. But the slow pace of this film is key to a fundamental issue being addressed. Alvin cannot be in a hurry, so he is not in a hurry. He accepts the terms of his task. So both he and we truly see the world he is passing through. The Straight Story is not an eventful film. Instead this is a story about the dignity of human beings. It is a movie of great beauty and insight. It is a piece of American poetry that I highly recommend to you. More on IMDB