The Straight Story

USA/France/UK 1999

Film still for The Straight Story

Reviewed by Kevin Jackson

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Laurens, Iowa, 1994. Alvin Straight, a stubborn 73-year-old widower who lives with his adult daughter Rose, suffers a bad fall and is sent to the local clinic. The doctor warns him he is in dangerously poor health and needs to take better care of himself, but Alvin shows little sign of mending his ways. Rose takes a phone call and learns Alvin's estranged older brother Lyle has had a stroke. Despite Rose's warnings and the incredulity of his fellow townspeople, Alvin is determined to travel to Lyle's home in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, and try to patch up their ancient quarrel - by an idiosyncratic means of transport: a motor-driven lawnmower.

On his slow and often interrupted chug to Wisconsin, Alvin meets and befriends a variety of people, including coach tourists heading for a grotto; a pregnant teenage runaway; a woman whose daily commute to work usually involves crashing into and killing deer; volunteer firefighters; a generous family who allow him to live in their garden while his lawnmower is being repaired by identical-twin mechanics who constantly bicker with each other; a World War II veteran with whom Alvin shares anguished memories of combat; and a hospitable priest. At long last, Alvin reaches the ramshackle wooden house where Lyle lives. The two old men sit together on the porch, largely wordless though seemingly deeply moved by their long-deferred reunion.

Review

All the usual elements are present and correct at the start: the mock-innocent lilt of an Angelo Badalamenti score; a threateningly bland vista of one-storey clapboard houses and trimmed gardens; the mildly grotesque figure of a plump, recumbent woman sunning herself with a reflector while gobbling unappetising foodstuffs; a chillingly slow, predatory camera move in towards the house on the left; a sudden thumping noise from deep within. Any minute now, you expect David Lynch to bring on the severed genitals, the dwarves who talk Atlantean, the psychopath who injects himself in the pineal gland while crooning hits from Broadway shows of the 20s. Something like that, anyway.

Well, forget it. Behind the eerily normal and wholesome facade of Laurens, Iowa, are eerily normal and wholesome folks living ordinary lives. If you sit through The Straight Story waiting for Lynch to cut the cornpone and turn weird and ugly, then you will pass 111 minutes in vain, for the film is pretty much as good as its punning title promises. Its narrative has digressions, but not a single kink.

To be sure, there are a few sequences showing Lynch in a more familiar vein, such as Alvin's encounter with a woman who has inadvertently become a serial 'bambicide' ("Every week I plough into at least one deer and I love deer!"), or his dispute with the identical-twin mechanics who spend more time sniping at each other than tinkering with engines. And the film sometimes sounds as well as looks like a typical Lynch product: when Alvin and another old-timer sit at a quiet bar recalling the guilty horror of their war service, the air gradually becomes filled with the crash and wail of heavy artillery. On the whole, though, this is a film made by David Lynch the sometime Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, not David Lynch the inspired sicko behind Blue Velvet and Eraserhead.

Grant this disconcerting limitation, and there's a lot to admire about the film, from Freddie Francis' cinematography (it's hard to do much new with sweeping fields of Iowan corn, but Francis manages it: some of the aerial shots render these growths as burnished tweed) to the impeccable and moving tact of the final reunion between the two brothers. Harry Dean Stanton's appearance as Lyle is as haunting as it is brief, though the film's richest performance belongs to Sissy Spacek as Alvin's "simple" daughter Rose who, with her speech impediment and habit of building bird-houses, initially seems like a refugee from the Lynch carnival but gains in gravity with every scene. The Straight Story also has the best crane-shot joke in years: the camera catches Alvin's puttering progress from behind, rises into the sky with epic majesty, then gracefully sweeps down again to reveal Alvin, about four feet further down the highway.

But to enumerate redeeming features is to confess a need for redemption. Lynch's film risks being nothing more than sweet-natured, and its habit of treating ornery old Alvin like a kindly wizard who sets people's lives to rights with a twinkle and a yarn can be more than a trifle sickly. In its least beguiling moment, Alvin tells a sad runaway a little homily about binding sticks together into a bunch so they won't break. "That's family," he sums up; at which point, ill-natured viewers will snarl that the Romans used to call such wooden bundles fasces and look where that homely symbol ended up.

Credits

Producers
Mary Sweeney
Neal Edelstein
Screenplay
John Roach
Mary Sweeney
Director of Photography
Freddie Francis
Editor
Mary Sweeney
Production Designer
Jack Fisk
Music/Music Conductor/Orchestrator
Angelo Badalamenti
┬ęThe Straight Story, Inc.
Production Companies
Alain Sarde presents with Le Studio Canal+ and with the participation of Film Four a Picture Factory production
Executive Producers
Pierre Edelman
Michael Polaire
Production Co-ordinator
Anne Johns
Unit Production Manager
Billy Higgins
Location Manager
Bob Medcraft
Post-production Supervisor
Spike Allison Hooper
Assistant Directors
Scott Cameron
Simone Farber
Eric Sherman
Script Supervisor
Jules M. Stewart
Casting
Jane Alderman
Lynn Blumenthal
Associates:
Catherine Head
Sarah Jane Hill
Nancy Briggs
Aerial Directors of Photography
David Nowell
David Butler
Camera Operator
Gordon Hayman
Special Effects
Gary D'Amico
Set Decorator
Barbara Haberecht
Costume Designer
Patricia Norris
Costume Supervisor
William T. Zacha
Make-up
Bob Harper
Hair
Sally Harper
Deborah Dee
Special Make-up Effects
Crist Ballas
Titles/Opticals
Pacific Title/Mirage
Music Editor
Walter Spencer
Score Engineer/Mixer
John Neff
Soundtrack
"The Most Requested Song (from Strange Tales of the Late West)" by Middlejohn, John Neff; "Y' Ready" by Spade Cooley, performed by The Radio Ranch Straight Shooters; "Solo Spin Out" by/performed by The Radio Ranch Straight Shooters; "Happy Times" by Sidney Fine, performed by Jo Stafford

Sound Design
David Lynch
Location Sound Mixer
Susumu Tokunow
2nd Engineer
Bryan Arenas
Re-recording Mixers
John Neff
Additional:
Patrick Giraudi
Supervising Sound Editor
Ron Eng
Dialogue Editor
Walter Spencer
Effects Editors
Ron Eng
Doug Jackson
Foley
Supervisor:
Howard Neiman
Artists:
Diane Marshall
David Fein
Recordists:
Lucy Sustar
Mary Erstad
Editor:
Howard Neiman
Stunt Co-ordinators
Rick LeFevour
Jim Fierro
Helicopter Pilot
Bobby 'Z' Zajonc
Cast
Richard Farnsworth
Alvin Straight
Sissy Spacek
Rose Straight
Harry Dean Stanton
Lyle Straight
Everett McGill
Tom the John Deere dealer
John Farley
Thorvald Olsen
Kevin Farley
Harald Olsen
Jane Galloway Heitz
Dorothy
Joseph A. Carpenter
Bud
Donald Wiegert
Sig
Tracey Maloney
nurse
Dan Flannery
Doctor Gibbons
Jennifer Edwards-Hughes
Brenda
Ed Grennan
Pete
Jack Walsh
Apple
Max the Wonder Dog
farm dog
Gil Pearson
bus driver
Barbara June Patterson
woman on bus
Anastasia Webb
Crystal
Max Guidry
Steve
Bill McCallum
Rat
Barbara Robertson
deer woman
James Cada
Danny Riordan
Sally Wingert
Darla Riordan
Barbara Kingsley
Janet Johnson
Jim Haun
Johnny Johnson
Wiley Harker
Verlyn Heller
Randy Wiedenhoff
Jerry E. Anderson
firemen
John Lordan
priest

Garrett Sweeney
Peter Sweeney
Tommy Fahey
Matt Fahey
Dan Fahey
boys in truck
Russ Reed
Mt Zion bartender
Ralph Feldhacker
farmer on tractor

Certificate
U
Distributor
Film Four Distributors
10,029 feet
111 minutes 26 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
FotoKem
Anamorphic [Panavision]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011