Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Movie Log: The Straight Story

In some universe, somewhere, it's just barely possible that David Lynch directed a happy, brightly-colored Disney animated movie, something with a perky chipmunk befriending a curmudgeonly vole, perhaps. So it's not true that The Straight Story is the least likely Lynch movie conceivable. But it's definitely in the top ten.

The Straight Story is one of those torn-from-life movies, a heartwarming tale that would fit very well on the Hallmark Channel or something similar. In 1994, Alvin Straight, a retired farmer in his seventies with bad eyesight, a bad back, and the usual other health troubles connected with reaching that age after an active rural life, learned that his estranged brother Lyle is seriously ill, and decided to visit. Unfortunately, Alvin didn't have a driver's license anymore, so he set off on a 1966 John Deer riding mower -- and spent the next several weeks covering the 240+ miles to his brother.

In The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth -- you'll know his face, even if you don't recognize the name -- plays Alvin, and the movie is a quiet procession of the scenes and people he sees along the way, along the back roads of farm-country Iowa. The supporting cast changes with each small town or scene Alvin passes through, except for his long-suffering daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), whom we see several times during the movie.

Lynch slows his camera movements to match the pace of Alvin's tractor here, often swooping out to show gorgeous vistas of farmland and then falling back to see Alvin's mower, only a few dozen yards further down the road. Angelo Badalmenti's rootsy soundtrack is another strong note in this quiet, contemplative film. It has an autumnal, elegiac air, even though it takes place mostly in late summer; this is the story of one old man going slowly to see another one so they both can apologize -- or, if not that, at least quietly agree that they don't need to apologize to each other anymore.

This is a lovely, thoughtful movie with hidden depths -- that much I would expect from Lynch. The sustained quiet eye on rural America, old men, and their hidden pasts -- not as much. (Well, that last one is more Lynchian.) Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for this role, and he definitely deserved that; The Straight Story is one of the most unexpectedly strong movies of the past two decades.
Listening to: Headlights - Get Going
via FoxyTunes

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