Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: The Straight Story (1999)

The Straight Story (1999)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: John Roach & Mary Sweeney.
Starring: Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose Straight), Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle Straight), Jane Galloway Heitz (Dorothy), Joseph Carpenter (Bud), Donald Wiegert (Sig), Ed Grennan (Pete), Jack Walsh (Apple), James Cada (Danny Riordan), Wiley Harker (Verlyn Heller), Kevin Farley (Harald Olsen), John P. Farley (Thorvald Olsen), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), Barbara E. Robertson (Deer woman), John Lordan (Priest), Everett McGill (Tom).

David Lynch has described The Straight Story as his most experimental film – and I guess for David Lynch that is true. Unlike everything else Lynch has ever made, there is nothing surreal or otherworldly about the film. It is a very simple film – an old man, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) decides to take a multi-state trip to see his brother, who he has not seen in 10 years because of an unnamed argument, who has just had a stroke. That by itself, is nothing weird. What makes the story unique is that he goes on that trip on a riding lawnmower. He cannot drive anymore, has no one else who can take him, and doesn’t want to take a bus. For him, this is something he needs to do on his own – so he does. It takes him weeks, and along the way he meets a series of interesting characters – but none of them are interesting as Alvin himself. Along the way, he dispenses some life lessons, that he has learned the hard way.

This probably sounds like something sickly sweet and sentimental – another wacky old person movie that we get a few times every year, and does well with the retiree crowd, and then is quickly forgotten. In a way, that is precisely what The Straight Story is. But there is more here than that as well. While the movie does follow a standard formula, it’s much more genuine than most of the films in the genre.

Much of the for The Straight Story being as good as it is belongs to Richard Farnsworth – a former stuntman, turned actor, in his final screen performance. At 79 years old, after Gregory Peck and John Hurt turned down the role, Farnsworth came out of retirement to do the role. He was already suffering from cancer at this time – and needed to have a specially made seat for the riding lawnmower so he could film the movie and not be in extreme pain. The year after the film came out, Farnsworth killed himself rather than suffer a slow death from cancer. Farnsworth, in this role, is incapable of playing a false move. Peck and Hurt may be better actors than Farnsworth – but I don’t think either one of them could have possibly have been better than Farnsworth here.

One of the great things about Farnsworth’s performance is how normal he makes this character. It is admittedly odd behavior to travel across several states on a riding lawn mower, but Farnsworth makes the decision seem natural. He needs to get there, and how else could he get there? As he travels, and meets people, he is well aware that they see his journey as strange – and he doesn’t much care. He is at peace with himself, and for the most part his with the life he has lived. Yes, there are regrets – too many years drinking, a mistake from his WWII service, the wife and children who have died along the way. But all of these things have given him insight into life. When offers the advice to the people he meets along the way, although much of it would sound clich├ęd should I quote it here, coming from Farnsworth it’s not. He received a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his work here – and he would have been a better winner than Kevin Spacey for American Beauty (even though I am still someone who defends American Beauty).

Lynch’s strategy in the film really is very simple. The film is beautiful to look at, and unlike the past where Lynch has delved into small town life, there is nothing writhing beneath the surface. He captures the Midwest in simple shots, as he simply follows along with Alvin, or in the nighttime scenes where Alvin camps out. The ever strange music of Angelo Badalamenti is also more subdued and beautiful here – setting the mood perfectly. Lynch doesn’t look down on Alvin, or anyone else in the movie – a complaint he has gotten throughout his career. The final moments in the film are as simple as the rest of the film – and as perfect.

Why did Lynch decide to do The Straight Story? It’s the one feature he’s made where he didn’t write (or co-write) the screenplay, and it is like nothing else he has ever made before or since. Even in a movie as simple and straightforward as The Elephant Man, Lynch could not stop himself from throwing in strange, surreal touches, and segments with his typical, complex sound design – whether the movie needed them or not. He does none of that here. Perhaps it was just to show that he could. Perhaps, after a few years and a few movies that were not very well received, he wanted to just recharge his batteries and do something different. We’ve seen this before in great directors – Martin Scorsese making After Hours (1995) or Steven Soderberg making Schizopolis (1996) for example. I don’t know why Lynch made this film – and I don’t much care. It is, quite simply, a beautiful film. Its beauty is in its simplicity – and Lynch knows this, and stays out of the way. Lynch will forever be known for his weird films – but I hope people do not overlook The Straight Story – which is actually one of his best.

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