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With: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton
Written by: John Roach
Directed by: David Lynch
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 111
Date: 05/20/1999

The Straight Story (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lawnmower Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a true story, The Straight Story follows 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, an Oscar nominee in 1978 for Comes a Horseman) as he travels cross-country on a John Deere lawnmower. This G-rated Disney movie is directed by none other than David Lynch, who is generally known for dipping into the darkest corners of the human soul for deranged movies like Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997), and the Twin Peaks television series and movie. The Straight Story is like none of these, and yet it still has a thin lining of Lynchian sensibility.

Alvin doesn't have a driver's license, can't see very well, and can't stand without the help of two canes. There are other things wrong with him, as we learn in an early visit to the doctor. But what he can do is drive his little motorized lawnmower (top speed, 5 miles an hour). When Alvin hears that his estranged brother has had a stroke, he knows that he must make the trip to visit him come hell or high water. When a friendly neighbor offers to drive Alvin to his destination. His reply is, "you're a kind mind talking to a stubborn man."

Alvin has all kinds of old-fashioned country wisdom at his fingertips. He meets lots of different people on his journey and everyone is immediately taken with him, just as we in the audience are. A young girl who is a pregnant runaway listens to his stories about family and heads back home. Alvin teaches a group of bicyclists that the worst thing about getting old is remembering when you were young. When his lawnmower breaks down halfway, he spends a few days on a nice couple's front lawn, and forges a relationship with them as well. This effect is due to Lynch's lovely pacing and Farnsworth's amazing Oscar-worthy performance.

The astute viewer may find traces of Lynch's usual bizarro small-town characters from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks in The Straight Story, but the people in the new movie are on the level. There's no odd undercurrent or mean streak involved. There are slight weirdnesses here and there: Alvin's daughter, played by Sissy Spacek, has a strange speech impediment; Alvin's next-door neighbor is a fat woman who suntans while eating chips and Ding Dongs; and there's a set of twin brother mechanics who work on Alvin's lawnmower -- one of whom has what looks like a chunk of metal protruding from his lower jaw.

There are no cover-ups in this movie. It moves slowly because Alvin moves slowly and it would be a cheat to make a faster-paced movie about him. The Straight Story doesn't kid us about the horrors of old age, or even about some of the horrors of everyday life. But Alvin has learned to deal with them. When on the open road, it starts to rain and Alvin parks his lawnmower underneath an abandoned barn on the side of the road, to wait it out. Though he doesn't say anything, we know he is more thankful for the shelter than he is upset about the rain. Because of this, The Straight Story becomes Lynch's most human film to date. Even though it's not as vicious or dangerous as Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, it ranks along with them as one of his best achievements. It's also one of the best pictures of the year.

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