Video Review: The Straight Story
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

If you need a break from the ear-splitting explosions, diverse killings, and vulgarity that belches forth from the summertime multiplex, we have the film for you. Ironically, it comes from none other than director David Lynch, a man known for his edgy subject matter. The creator of such strange fare as ERASERHEAD, BLUE VELVET and the mysterious television series TWIN PEAKS, has made a gem of a G-rated movie (for Walt Disney Pictures no less). In The Straight Story, he succeeds in creating a simple, satisfying film that is “straight” in both its affirming themes and in its telling.

The story’s simplicity is almost comical: 73-year-old Alvin Straight drives a riding lawnmower several hundred miles from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his brother, Lyle, who has suffered a terrible stroke. Along the way, Alvin impacts the lives of people who cross his path by sharing wisdom learned in his long and storied life. Though faced with many setbacks, a deep, personal determination motivates Alvin to continue. He and Lyle have not spoken in over ten years and Alvin must make the journey of reconciliation before it’s too late.

Part of what makes this story fascinating is the fact that it is a true story. But equally compelling is how the director chooses to tell the story.

A large part of a director’s work is casting and the film is well cast. In a film with so little dialogue, Lynch succeeds in revealing the character’s hearts through their eyes. And none of the actors are better at this than Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth delivers an Academy Award nominating performance as the film’s stubborn, taciturn Alvin Straight. In his old age, Alvin has lost most of his eyesight, has bad hips, and suffers from emphysema, but he doesn’t ask for help. As he says himself, he’s “not dead yet.” Underneath his rough exterior, Alvin is a man of great love. He treats his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), who has a speech impediment, with tender respect. While others think she’s “slow,” he respects her intelligence and understands her emotional awareness. Unfortunately, her physical challenges tend to alienate others and Sissy Spacek plays her so realistically that we too feel uncomfortable. But through Lynch’s direction and well-placed visuals uncover her suffering heart.

Lynch keeps the movie’s pace very deliberate which makes us constantly aware of the time involved in Alvin’s physical and emotional journey. For some viewers, this will be uncomfortable. We have become accustomed to fast images and quick editing styles, but Lynch slows the film down so we have time to reflect on what is really happening in each scene. Lynch gives us an opportunity to observe the humanity in these unique characters. As the journey progresses, stories he shares with others peal away the layers of Alvin’s life. We learn that he fought in World War II from which he carries a significant burden. We learn about his relationships with Rose and Lyle, and hear him confess to many mistakes he has made in life. We learn that he sincerely cares about others and has the ability to gently guide them through their troubles.

One of the film’s most refreshing aspects is that its characters are not Hollywood characters and the conflicts aren’t Hollywood conflicts. Alvin isn’t a 26 year old pretty boy who has to shoot through gun-running drug dealers to get to his brother. The film represents the quiet drama that exists in all our lives. It’s about interacting with people, making amends for past grievances, and about overcoming significant personal challenges. Most of us aren’t pitted against an arch-enemy out to destroy the world or even live in an environment that is inherently hostile. Alvin portrays the triumph of a simple man over the trials of his own life. He rose above what–to him–were insurmountable obstacles. And for what? For his brother.

You could say that The Straight Story is an allegory or a parable. You could even say that Alvin Straight is an “everyman” akin to the medieval morality plays. But, all of that would belie the simple fact that experiencing this slice of Alvin’s life, and meeting the people he meets, brings understanding and lightens the heart. We don’t have to go through the mental exercise of “applying” Straight’s story to our own. Lynch not only effectively captures the feel of rural Great Planes America, but also rejoices in the goodness of people. In many ways, the film can be enjoyed more during successive viewings when you don’t have to worry about the plot (i.e. “is he going to make it?”), and you can simply bask in the light of his experience.

The main theme is expressed through Alvin’s emotional journey to gain his brother’s forgiveness and reconciliation. As the movie ends, we understand in visual terms what Alvin cannot express in words–his “broken heart and a contrite spirit.” Without resorting to tactics designed to jerk our tears, Lynch ends the film on a single, silent shot that speaks volumes and is even more satisfying.

Both in technique and in plot, The Straight Story illustrates one of the great truths from scripture: “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6). This, in itself, is a simple truth, but it is difficult to slow down enough to recognize the small events all around us. Through his straightforward style, Lynch allows us to come away from a movie with something truly significant–stirred emotions and uplifted hearts.

 


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