The Straight Story
When you know that David Lynch directed such surreal, twisted films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, hearing that he also made a G-rated film about an old man and his tractor sounds like the beginning of a monumentally bad joke. In 1999, though, he did just that, and the movie he made is The Straight Story.
The Straight Story gets its title from its protagonist, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, nominated for an Oscar in his final film role; he died the year after the film was released), although the title can also be taken as a warning to Lynch fans expecting his usual lurid twists and turns: this story will be straightforward and simple, quiet and reflective.
As far as the story goes, it is about Alvin’s journey to visit his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), with whom he has not spoken in years. Alvin’s eyesight is too poor for him to drive, and he does not like riding with anyone else driving, so he decides to drive his riding lawnmower the ninety-odd miles to visit his brother before it is too late. He meets some people and has some minor setbacks along the way, but that’s really it as far as plot.
As quietly captivating as Farnsworth’s performance is, the star of The Straight Story is really the midwestern landscape. Captured by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who also worked with Lynch on The Elephant Man and Dune, the green cornfields and, yes, amber waves of grain become a contemplative space onscreen, allowing the audience to enter in to the languid, possibly mystical experience of Alvin Straight’s journey.
And if the cinematography is the star, the soundtrack is the supporting actor. Frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s spare, evocative score perfectly complements Francis’s images, inviting the audience to slow down, look around, and pay attention to the deep mysteries of the journey.