The Straight Story (1999)

D: David Lynch
S: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek

The true story of how one elderly man travelled hundreds of miles on a tractor-mower to visit his estranged brother becomes a unique odyssey through the heartlands of Americana as only David Lynch can picture them. Though almost bereft of the grotesquerie of Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks TV series, this film treads the same boards as Lynch's previous surrealist trips through the American sub-conscious just as his previous 'straight' story The Elephant Man travelled a world of Industrial-Victorian and Carnivalesque imagery not a million miles away from the experimental feature Eraserhead. Ironically, like the middle-period films of Luis Buñuel, Lynch achieves the tone of metaphysical reflection in The Straight Story through recourse to realism. His camera lingers on the open fields and skies of Iowa and Wisconsin, with only occasional flashes of symbolism and weirdness which cause us to reflect more deeply on what we see. The film is surreal on its deepest level. It is an exploration of the textures and hues of human life as much from within as without. Though Lynch concentrates entirely on the representation of the physical, the film touches on the spiritual in a profoundly moving way by reaching inside for its moral and emotional logic.

Richard Farnsworth's performance is central to the film. He captures the unique, paradoxical sense of inner conflict and outward serenity which drives the narrative. The actor commands the screen yet carries himself with a powerful dignity which keeps him in synch with the landscape and with Lynch's vision of it. His single-minded, quasi-religious devotion to his unique quest is both engaging and affecting, and it's difficult not to empathise with his situation and share his sense of anxiety and compassion when he reaches his goal. True story or no, this is a consummate piece of thespian interpretation. Sissy Spacek is also impressive in support as his slightly handicapped daughter who bears her own silent pain with as much understanding and support as she can give her errant father during his journey.

The film takes the form of a road movie, which Lynch has explored before in Wild at Heart (and elements of Lost Highway). Such films often lend themselves to an episodic structure, and The Straight Story is composed of a series of moments and encounters. Again Farnsworth is key to keeping things on an even keel, as he reflects on his own life and sense of purpose rather than necessarily attempting to resolve the problems of those he meets, as often happens. That said, the road movie format allows Lynch to give us a series of fleeting glimpses of entire worlds of human experience and stories in progress which act as thematic signposts. One bizarre incident has Barbara E. Robertson reaching the end of her tether after colliding with a deer, finishing with a Lynchian epilogue as Farnsworth later eats the dead animal in a field of sculptures. It sounds more exotic than it is, and the film is peppered with such set pieces, each of which allows Farnsworth to wend his way towards his brother (Harry Dean Stanton). Lynch does not pretend that these momentary insights offer a full understanding of contemporary America, but they do cause us to reflect on it in terms of our sense of values at the turn of the millennium.

This is not a movie that will be universally appreciated. On one level it may seem to be Lynch Does Disney, a very inoffensive true story told with restraint and a notable lack of violence, profanity, or other behavioural extremes. Yet the premise is itself an irresistible illustration of the hidden depths of feeling which motivate people and we are forced to question just why his man would do this if not out of emotional intensity much greater than anything we have ever felt ourselves. This is where Lynch really turns the screws in spite of the surface calm, and where Farnsworth's performance allows us access to the deeper sub-texts. We glimpse in his eyes a measure of the pain and regret he feels over his quarrel with his brother. We watch him struggle with his pride and treat everyone with deference and consideration even as they obviously think of him as something of an eccentric old man on a lunatic's errand. Though we are invited to smile, we are also forced to understand the importance of forgiveness, redemption, and ultimately salvation in a world which is at once familiar and unearthly. It builds up a powerful reservoir of emotional charge, and though the finale is as beautifully understated as the rest of the film, it is cathartic enough to make it not quite a resolution, but certainly an end point.

Well worth seeing, if for not other reason than Farnsworth's wonderful performance and veteran Freddie Francis' ravishing cinematography.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.