Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Straight Story

One of the most effective images of Midwestern decency I've seen was featured in a film directed by David Lynch.  The very same artist who quite unflatteringly looked into the shadows and at the underbelly of small town life in BLUE VELVET.  The man whose films unflinchingly examine the most grotesque of human impulse and behavior.  In 1999, Lynch's G-rated THE STRAIGHT STORY forewent the disturbing elements usually associated with his art with a bittersweet, moving narrative of an elderly man who decides to visit his long estranged, ill brother.  Along the way, he spends the night at the home of friendly strangers who, unlike what might occur in other Lynch tales, do not attempt to abuse or mutilate the traveler.   The next morning, the hosts find a few dollars left by the man for the long distance phone call he made.

A simple image of a simple gesture, but incredibly effective.  A good man does the right thing, what a novelty in contemporary cinema.  And stylist Lynch lets the action speak for itself, sans emotional string sections or gauzy camerawork.  His movie is a beautifully rendered ode to family and faith, told in a manner described by the film's title.

Based on a true story, THE STRAIGHT STORY is about seventy-three year old Iowan Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, Oscar nominated), who sets out on a John Deere tractor to see his older brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), with whom he had a falling out a decade before, and who lives hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin. Alvin has multiple health problems, a cognitively impaired daughter (Sissy Spacek), and the weight of memories.  He shares those haunting recollections with folks he meets on the road, including a preacher, a pregnant woman hitchhiker, and a group of bicyclists.  He's not merely imparting wisdom, but confessing his sins (old and new) before God and man.

The screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney is never once condescending or riddled with attempts at irony.  The entire project seems almost divinely appointed.  The film is reverent to its subjects and their landscape. Lynch, despite amazing restraint, still adds local color and eccentricity - sometimes in the margins (watch the bar scenes closely), and sometimes in the central action (how Alvin deals with his first tractor, the episode with the lady motorist and the deer).

The idea of an old guy riding a tractor at no faster than 5 MPH across state lines to see an ailing sibling just sounds Lynchian. When I first learned of this project, I was picturing something very different than the result.  THE STRAIGHT STORY never crosses into the patently bizarre or the unwatchable, as moments in films like WILD AT HEART and LOST HIGHWAY do.  Perhaps David Lynch was just waiting for the inspiration to make a movie like this, one that possibly reflects his Midwestern upbringing.  Watch the interviews - he's a real humble guy.  Doesn't even cuss.  Hard to believe this man was capable of creating such outrageous, violent, and even sociopathic imagery in his works.

THE STRAIGHT STORY was a warm surprise from the director, and one to treasure.  

No comments: