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  • Benjamin May

The Straight Story (1999) Review

Alvin Straight is a 73-year-old Veteran living in Laurens, Iowa with his daughter Rose. Though Straight can barely walk, he refuses a Zimmer frame, opting instead to make use of two canes to get around. One day, Straight discovers that his estranged brother Lyle- who lives some 240 miles away in Wisconsin- has had a stroke and is near death's door. Having no automobile but wanting to see his brother, the strong-willed Straight decides to use his lawn-mower to make the journey, despite the daunting nature of the task. On an odyssey through the American countryside, will Straight make it all the way to Wisconsin before his John Deere breaks down?

Based on true events, David Lynch's 'The Straight Story' is a beautiful film that works as a lyrical ballad for the American landscape and a moving character study both. John Roach and Mary Sweeney's screenplay weaves a powerfully unaffected tale that speaks volumes about the human condition. Like Hemingway, the dialogue is simple and profound, and the story full of subtleties. As Straight embarks on his quest, we learn of his life- as well as the lives of the characters he encounters along the way- and the film becomes a tapestry of American Midwestern existence.

Containing much warm-humor and genuine drama, 'The Straight Story' is Lynch's least abstract film and arguably his most emotionally percipient. As Straight plods ever onward, his mower straining over hills, the simplicity of the central narrative disappears, and the film becomes epic in scale. Like a Greek tragedian, Lynch uses Straight's story as a canvas to explore human nature, connecting with the audience on a deeper, more profound level. By the time the credits roll, viewers will have gone on an emotional journey as lengthy and impactful as Straight's 240-mile quest; and one just as memorable.

Often, Lynch uses the same core crew for his films, and 'The Straight Story' reunites him with many of them; cinematographer Freddie Francis being just one. Francis captures the majesty of the American landscape incredibly, putting one in mind of the work of Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler from Terence Malick's 'Days of Heaven.' With amber waves of grain rippling like an ocean in the wind, red barns erupting from yellow cornfields, the night sky draped in starlight sitting over the world like a crown; the film is a visual feast.

Lynch has stated that a successful film is comprised of "sound and image flowing together through time," positing that, in scenes, visuals and sounds must complement each other; as they do masterfully throughout 'The Straight Story.' The late, great Angelo Badalamenti's score is haunting and melodic, tonally matching Francis' visuals perfectly. The film's stunning marriage of sound and image is unforgettable and evocative work, held together adroitly by Lynch and Sweeney's unobtrusive editing.

'The Straight Story' stars Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, delivering a tour de force performance of great emotional sagacity and depth. He is completely authentic and utterly charming, carrying with him a mournful air that is most affecting. Throughout his decades long career, Farnsworth gave some terrific performances in a variety of projects. Whether in 'Comes A Horseman,' 'The Grey Fox,' or 'Misery;' he was always believable, often making his fellow actors look mannered and forced through his ease of performance. As Straight, he never puts a foot wrong; turning in what may be one of the finest, most subtle pieces of acting ever captured on film. That he didn't win the Academy Award for his efforts is frankly shameful, and a testament to the fact that the Academy more often than not get it wrong.

All from the supporting cast do commendable work, with Sissy Spacek impressing greatly as Straight's daughter Rose, who has some sort of learning difficulty. Spacek doesn't overdo the eccentricity of her character, giving a very measured and thoughtful performance that is a highlight of her filmography. Additionally, Harry Dean Stanton has a short but unforgettable scene where he demonstrates in thirty seconds the boundless depth, range and pure acting prowess that endeared him to so many; and just may leave you in tears.

Powerful and poignant, David Lynch's 'The Straight Story' is- for all intents and purposes- a flawless piece of filmmaking. With a strong screenplay from Mary Sweeney and John Roach and captivating cinematography from Freddie Francis- not to mention the great score from Angelo Badalamenti- it is brilliant from start to finish. Featuring impactful performances from the likes of Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, and anchored by a career best Richard Farnsworth; 'The Straight Story' is about as close to perfect as a film can come.


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