We all know a David Lynch movie when we see one. Psychedelic dream sequences, highly confusing plots, and a general sense of mystery not replicated by anyone else. In The Straight Story, however, he gives us something completely different. Notable for being the only film of his for which he did not pen the screenplay, it explores the amazingly true story of Alvin Straight as he travels the cross country by lawnmower (yes, by lawnmower!!!) to repair his fractured relationship with his dying brother.
Alvin Straight is a 70 something-year-old man who has been dealt a rough hand in life. From health issues of any and every kind, to have gone through the pain of losing a wife, several children at infancy, and a host of friends in World War II. He’s a man who you would expect to be completely jaded by everything he’s been through, but somehow manages to maintain a somewhat upbeat attitude.
The first act of the film introduces us to Alvin in his natural habitat. We see him spending time with his daughter who lives with and takes care of him. We see him being admired by his friends and neighbors and we see him go through uncomfortable doctor’s appointments recommending him procedures he clearly cannot afford.
Alvin doesn’t have the best eyesight and therefore can’t get a driver’s license. His daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) is mentally challenged and can’t seem to help him up there either. It doesn’t help that they also don’t have a car.
The first time Alvin sets out on this journey, his lawnmower unsurprisingly breaks down and he has to be taken back home by bus. Still undeterred, Alvin repairs his vehicle and begins the trip again.
Over the course of the trip, Alvin predictably encounters some setbacks and due to the speed of his vehicle, spends an extraordinarily long time making his journey. Along the way, he extends tokens of kindness to total strangers and in turn, total strangers extend kindness to him. Even characters that we meet for only one or two scenes are so engaging that we want to know what happened to them long after Alvin has left them behind.
The lead performance by Richard Farnsworth is astounding. The fact he was suffering from bone cancer while shooting this film only makes it doubly impressive. The film’s score is mellow, accurately reflecting the tone of the film and the pace at which Alvin not only goes on this journey but also lives his life. The screenplay is smart, subtle. It’s dialog-heavy but isn’t beating you over the head with exposition. It calmly and coolly pulls back the layers of the character as we go through the story.
Alvin’s journey to see his brother isn’t just about re-establishing lost connections. It’s about going back to a time when things were good and life was simpler, a time when he could laugh about the joys in life, a time when he could look up and count the stars with his brother (as he remarks at some point during the film). And when he does eventually make it over there to see him, with very little in way of actual words spoken, he is indeed able to roll back the clock.
David Lynch showed with this film that he is far from a one-trick pony. Here, he brings to life a story so sweet, so normal, so human that you can’t help but love it. The fact that this is a true story only makes it all the more endearing.