In a state as big as Texas, where I am from and is currently living, it’s quite impossible to travel between two big cities without having to cross hours of open country in-between. Most of the time I never bother to look out my driver’s side window. I usually stare ahead at the road, counting the miles until I see a glimmer of my destination. That’s the thing about driving in Texas. There is so much countryside all around you when you travel that after a while you forget that they even exist. But from time to time as I commute between cities — school breaks, vacations, trips home, etc. — I will be amazed by just how beautiful the countryside is, how un-city the views are. In the right time of year even the ditches along the Texas highways are filled with blooming yellow, white, and other assortment of colored flowers. The view is just breathtaking and you wonder how you could ever have driven right by them without truly “seeing”.
What does this have to do with David Lynch’s The Straight Story? That’s what the movie reminds me off — the open Texas countryside, completely untouched by pollutions of the city. Even when I’m speeding across the countryside, I can’t quite shake the serene feeling that overcomes me as I drive. It’s quite impossible for people who live in large urban sprawls like New York or L.A. to ever experience such a feeling. For those poor fools, if they’re smart enough to pick up a copy of Lynch’s The Straight Story, they will know what that feeling is like, and they will be transformed.
The Straight Story is not your usual David Lynch film. The auteur is most known for his weird films, where images and storylines seem like streams of consciousness captured on film. Movies such as the recent Mulholland Drive and the TV show “Twin Peaks” shows this oddball side of David Lynch at their fullest. The Straight Story, on the other hand, is as mainstream a film as you’ll ever find from the man. Like its title, the film is quite a straight and simple story.
After he gets news that his brother, Lyle, has suffered a stroke, 70-something Alvin Straight decides to take a trip across the state lines to visit his brother and mend broken fences that have kept the close siblings apart for the last 10 years. Alvin himself is no spring chicken, and after a fall he now has a broken hip and must rely on not one, but two walking sticks to get around. Alvin lives with his oldest daughter, Rose, who people calls “slow,” but one gets the feeling that she’s just awkward and deliberate with her words. Rose and Alvin take care of each other, but it’s really up to interpretation of who takes care of whom.
Rose is played by Sissy Spacek, who gives a tremendous performance as the emotionally crippled Rose, who has seen the State take her kids away from her when one of them is injured in a fire — which was completely not her fault, since the kids were staying with a babysitter at a time. Alvin is the substitute for her lost children. Alvin, we learn, is a WWII veteran. He’s been everywhere, he’s seen it all, done it all, and he has enough wisdom in his soulful eyes to fill a college library.
Richard Farnsworth gives a tour de force performance as Alvin, a cool, calm, and deliberate man in his twilight years. Alvin’s bad sight doesn’t allow him to drive and he’s much too stubborn and prideful to ride a bus and, as he says, “be driven by someone.” So Alvin decides that the only way to visit Lyle out-of-state is to drive there on his lawnmower. Alvin makes himself a makeshift rig and begins his journey, but he barely makes it out of the city limits when his lawnmower breaks down. After shooting the miserable piece of junk, Alvin gets himself a new lawnmower, and begins his journey once again.
Does Alvin reach Lyle? Of course he does. What kind of story would this be if he didn’t? Anyway, it’s not Alvin’s destination that matters. It’s Alvin’s journey. The weeks that he spends on the road, camping on the grass gazing up at the stars, and the people he encounters along the way. There’s an assortment of them, from a teenage runaway who is pregnant and is afraid to tell her parents; a hyperactive commuter who is quickly losing her mind because she keeps running into deers with her car during her commutes, and she loves deers; and a family in a small town who welcomes Alvin in after he’s almost derailed by a steep hill.
Director David Lynch films the Midwest countryside with loving attention. The camera sweeps over roads, hillsides, and sprawling cornfields. Everything is just perfectly captured and before we know it, the journey is complete. Along the way, you’ll laugh a lot, smile a lot, and maybe even shed a few tears or at least get choked up. Don’t be mistaken and think The Straight Story is a cheap tearjerker of a film. It isn’t and it doesn’t try to be. What it is is a trip down life and the decisions that we make during it.
The film’s most powerful scene is when Alvin meets up with a fellow WWII veteran and the two go out for a beer, where they talk about their experiences during the war. Both actors express more with their eyes in that one scene than some actors will ever be able to convey to the audience during a lifetime of work. It is truly one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a long, long while.
So take the journey with Alvin and David Lynch. Who knows, you might even learn a few things about life. Or at the very least see what you’re missing while hiding out in your urban cubbyholes. There is a world out there beyond your little condos and rent-controlled apartments. Don’t go to your grave without ever having experienced them at least once in your life. If you can’t do it in person, The Straight Story is a good enough of a substitute.
David Lynch (director) / John Roach, Mary Sweeney (screenplay)
CAST: Richard Farnsworth …. Alvin Straight
Sissy Spacek …. Rose Straight
Jane Galloway …. Dorothy
Joseph A. Carpenter …. Bud
Donald Wiegert …. Sig