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Holy Hell! The Straight Story Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Straight Story Turns 20

This is a small story containing the whole world.

We begin in outer space before soaring over cornfields. A huge combine harvester carves a groove. We see the water tower of Laurens, Iowa, and the town’s main street. Then we alight upon the lives of a few people and settle in, for a time. This is the start of the The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch, a film that thoroughly understands the folks it studies while approaching them as if they’re of a different species. Lynch is not being snobbish or precious about these people—a city boy riffing on country bumpkins, as it were—he remains instead clear-eyed and reverent. In fact, his camera’s floating descent comes to feel more literal: this is a small story containing the whole world.

Based on true events, The Straight Story rests on the worn-down body of Alvin Straight, played by the late stuntman and actor Richard Farnsworth. In the spirit of the former, Alvin, a retired farmer and World War II veteran, is introduced to us with a thud and later discovered on the floor of the house he shares with his autistic daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek, in a wonderfully even-handed performance). As a stubborn man with a temper quelled by age, Alvin makes but one compromise upon his subsequent checkup with the doctor: a second cane instead of a walker.

When Alvin gets word that his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), whom he hasn’t spoken to in a decade, has been laid low by a stroke, he decides to go and see him. Except Alvin won’t be someone’s passenger, and he insists upon making the journey alone. The reasons why are never quite verbalized specifically—Alvin at one point turns biblical to explain—but Lynch, with help from a script by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, does more than enough to illuminate Alvin’s inner justification. What follows is The Straight Story’s most prominent visual, one that proves to be both silly and profound: an old man on a riding mower driving along the country roads of middle America. It’s as if Lynch is daring us to laugh at his film’s central image—despite it having happened—and then walloping us with powerful emotion in our incredulity. His film is filled with that kind of dichotomy.

As the film’s title implies though, The Straight Story is linear, one episode following the next on a trip down the road of life. There are obstacles for Alvin to overcome, of course—a false start, some angry weather, a particularly dangerous downslope—but it’s the people he encounters that give shape to his journey. Along the way, Alvin consoles a young, pregnant hitchhiker running away from her family. He teaches a group of cyclists what it means to grow old. He’s confronted by a wild-eyed lady who has hit one too many deer with her car (giving the film its most bizarre moment, and best visual punchline—twice). And he relies on the kindness of strangers—a quaint couple, a kindly pastor, a friendly ear at the bar.

Despite his obvious frailty, Farnsworth carries the film the distance. Though it’s a cliché to say this, it really does feel like the role he’s been waiting his whole life to play. With a career stretching all the way back to 1937, and filled mostly with unnamed or uncredited parts, Farnsworth’s Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Straight Story doubles as something of a lifetime achievement. Like Alvin, Farnsworth will likely be most remembered for this one thing, and with good reason. The performance has its showy moments, but it’s the small touches Farnsworth brings—the dips of his head, the shine in his eyes—that make it memorable. What’s more, this was the final performance of his career. Farnsworth committed suicide a year after the film’s release after a battle with prostate cancer. Like Alvin’s singular drive, it’s almost as if he knew he had to get this movie done, and soon.

Similarly, it’s impossible to imagine The Straight Story in another director’s hands. Lynch may hold the honor of being one of the more “out there” filmmakers, but he’s also completely unafraid to confront what it means to be alive—and to face death. His most famous films are filled with violence and darkness, yes, but Lynch never shies away from the uncomfortable elements of everyday life, too. So while The Straight Story, a genteel and direct tale, is a departure for him, it also files right into that same continuum. Like all of Lynch’s films, it’s deeply felt and honest. It tackles huge existential questions, grapples with monumental fears and attempts to forge an inner and outer peace. The soaring otherworldly camera, the stargazing, even the recurring appearance of the harvester in its endless cycle—all fit this motif. There’s a face-value take here, and then there’s Lynch’s wisdom to see beyond it.

Still, when the ending arrives, when Alvin rounds that final bend and makes his way up the steps of his brother’s house, there remains this feeling of “is this it?” Even after almost two hours, it’s possible to still expect some curveball, some underlying weirdness—a hideous gremlin in the parking lot, a human ear lying in the grass—anything to subvert the straightforward emotion of what happens at film’s end. Instead, Lynch subverts the subversion. In between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and with wilder films to come, he plays it as absolutely straight as his film’s title. His characters are all small, the film’s themes impossibly big and the sentiment very real. Then off we go, back to the starfield, with a renewed perspective. What else is there to say?

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