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1 item from 1999

Cannes film review: 'The Straight Story'

24 May 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Another pleasant surprise -- along with Takeshi Kitano's highly entertaining, gentle "Kikujiro no Natsu" -- David Lynch's "The Straight Story" is a winning change of pace from a talented filmmaker known for darker highs and lows.

Picked up for distribution by Disney before its premiere in competition, "Straight" may leave some long-time Lynch ("Lost Highway") fans cold. But the elegantly simple, perfectly pitched, true story of a 73-year-old man's unspeedy journey to visit his estranged brother has potent commercial appeal and should be one to watch come awards time.

Photographed in classic widescreen style by two-time Oscar-winner Freddie Francis ("Sons and Lovers", "Glory"), the film's storytelling is primarily visual, with most dialogue scenes short and not striving for more than a literal reading of John Roach and Mary Sweeney's sympathetic portrayal of the stubborn lead character. Although it could have been something sillier, the film is warmly humorous rather than grotesquely satirical or surrealistic like Lynch's past takes on ordinary middle-American folk.

As the endless fields begin to yield their bounty in the harvest season, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) of Lurens, Iowa, receives word that his brother in Wisconsin has suffered a stroke. Alvin, a diabetic, cigar-smoker forced to use two walking canes and a "grabber" (a device that he uses to collect firewood on his trek), is fully aware that his time is running out.

The widowed father of seven, living with his "slow" daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), who speaks in a halting manner, Alvin longs to recapture the youthful contentment and familial togetherness with brother Lyle Harry Dean Stanton) after a decade of not communicating. Ignoring suggestions to make the trip more conventionally, Alvin constructs a trailer and hooks it to the back of his John Deere lawn mower.

After a false start, the clear-headed and adventuresome "old geezer" takes almost two months to ride 350 miles across the plains and over the Mississippi River, with one major setback and several encounters with memorable three-dimensional characters. There's a deliberate slow pace to the film, with almost no abrupt cuts for comic or dramatic effect. Likewise, the characters are free of eccentricities and the performances are understated but effective.

When he goes to buy a new mower at the outset, Tom the dealer (Everett McGill) is skeptical of Alvin's chances but sells him a 1966 classic with neighborly good cheer. Once he hits the road, Alvin sits around the campfire looking at the stars and gives advice to a runaway girl. On another occasion, he witnesses a distraught woman's despair at colliding with another of the countless deer in her regular, unavoidable route.

In perhaps the most moving scene, when he's momentarily stalled getting repairs, Alvin shares bitterly painful memories about his role in World War II with another veteran, Verlyn (Wiley Harker). Nearing his destination, a priest lets him stay in one of the oldest graveyards in the Midwest. The climax is short after the buildup, but tremendously moving.

In several fine examples of his unique skills, Lynch essentially turns off the soundtrack for muted tableaus that welcome one into the soothing rural milieu. Just as the journey is the thing, the particulars of the story are less important than the reflective, soulful spirit of Alvin, with Farnsworth handily carrying the film in perhaps his finest performance.


Bunes Vista Pictures Distribution

Walt Disney Pictures

Alain Sarde presents

a Picture Factory, Les Films Alain Sarde

and Le Studio Canal Plus production

Director:David Lynch

Screenwriters:John Roach, Mary Sweeney

Producers:Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney, Neal Edelstein

Director of photography:Freddie Francis

Production designer:Jack Fisk

Editor:Mary Sweeney

Music:Angelo Badalamenti

Costume designer:Patricia Norris


Alvin Straight:Richard Farnsworth

Rose:Sissy Spacek

Lyle:Harry Dean Stanton

Tom:Everett McGill

Verlyn Heller:Wiley Harker

Running time -- 112 minutes

MPAA rating: G


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1 item from 1999

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