Program Notes: The Straight Story (1999)
The Straight Story (1999) is a glorious aberration.
Director David Lynch is known for his bizarre characters, situations, and presentational style. But The Straight Story is alarmingly conventional.
Nevetheless, this is a film that takes chances.
At a time when movies tend to dazzle with speed and style, The Straight Story rolls along at a snail's pace (or, more precisely, at the speed of a John Deere riding mower), allowing us plenty of time to observe the changing sky and the flora in the roadside ditches.
Instead of a young, hot star, it gives us then-79-year-old Richard Farnsworth in a performance that is profoundly moving despite its simplicity.
And instead of the hip darkness we've come to expect from films like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, Lynch here dishes up a tender G-rated meditation on the sweetness of life’s uncomplicated pleasures as the light begins to fade.
John Roach and Mary Sweeney have based their screenplay on a real event. In 1994 retired farmer Alvin Straight drove his '66 John Deere riding mower nearly 300 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his ailing brother. His top speed was five miles per hour.
As explained in the movie, the motives behind this odd odyssey are pretty straightforward. Alvin (Farnsworth) has lost his driver's license but not his sense of pride and independence. And though he has been estranged from his brother for years, word of his sibling's stroke reminds him that life is too precious to waste on acrimony.
Sure, he could take the bus. But then he wouldn't really be doing it himself. So he bids farewell to his fretting and rather slow daughter (Sissy Spacek) and hits the road.
Despite setbacks – he kills his original mower before getting out of town and has to negotiate for a replacement – Alvin is soon riding a ribbon of blacktop, subsisting on a diet of hot dogs and sleeping in a makeshift trailer towed behind.
He spends some time with a pregnant teen (just enough to convince her that there's strength in family), encounters a woman motorist who has just plowed into her 14th deer in seven weeks (“Where do they come from?” she weeps), and with a fellow old-timer at a small-town bar finally unburdens himself of wartime memories that have been suppressed for decades. (“One thing I can't shake loose: All my buddies' faces are still young.”)
The Straight Story flirts with sentiment but never falls in. Lynch stands back just far enough that the characters seem to be acting independently of any guiding force. There's a happy randomness at work here and a trust in the eloquence of simplicity.
But just because Lynch is in a benevolent mood does not mean he has gone bland on us. The Straight Story is endearing for its little bursts of quirkiness, not only in its characters – small towns breed great eccentrics – but for the slyly twisted way in which he views the myriad inanities of rural life.
A grain elevator looms like an alien mothership, emitting weird noises. Alvin and his daughter pull a sofa up to the window and sit transfixed by a Midwestern thunderstorm, a show far better than anything on the tube.
Especially gratifying is the way in which the film glides into the gentle rhythms of Alvin’s long ride, nudged along by a loping fiddle tune. Even sitting in a darkened theater, we can almost feel the sunshine's heat, smell the grass, and get a high from the country air.
Other films in the series “Road Trip”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 4: It Happened One Night (1934) Not Rated
- August 11: Badlands (1973) Rated PG
- August 18: Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Rated R
- August 25: Thelma & Louise (1991) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 6: Harry and Tonto (1974) Rated R
- August 13: The Straight Story (1999) Rated G
- August 20: Vacation (1983) Rated R
- August 27: Broken Flowers (2005) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.