Now here’s a film with a simple, beautiful premise. An old, ill man determines to see his estranged brother before they die. His eyes are bad, so he can’t drive; there’s no car anyway. So his ride-along lawnmower is the only way to get to that brother, 350 miles away across Iowa to Wisconsin. And the story is true.David Lynch takes a leisurely two hours to tell The Straight Story – and it is lovely. John Roach and Mary Sweeney provide a script that charms you along the road with the old man, pausing with him for moments of human decency and friendliness, throwing out the occasional life-summing epigram:
“There’s no one knows your life better than a brother that’s near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but, I’m trying to put that behind me… and this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I’m not too late… a brother’s a brother.”
I love it. This is a gorgeous film that old Jack wishes he could live. Imagine a gentle, determined trip from this old home to the north of Scotland, meeting good folks along the way, getting helped when you’re in trouble, slowly sharing your story to happily listening ears. The romance of it!
Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin. He is a surprise throughout: a beautiful, crinkled old face with big, heart-tugging eyes and an open soul. His performance was nominated for an Oscar and quite right too. His heart is on his sleeve throughout, but it is an honest heart with tales to tell of a dead wife, multiple children, life’s utter cruelty to the daughter that remains with him (Sissy Spacek in a terrific, difficult performance as Rosie) and his days as a sniper in the war. He shares a moment in a bar with another old soldier, and they do what we never do here, they share the awfulness of comrades lost, faces always young in memory, their own old faces sagging and flexing with guilt and sharp sorrow. The performance reaches out and grabs you without the shouty histrionics of younger actors. Old Jack’s tears flowed. Yeah, I said it. Get over yourself.
Farnworth’s own story is remarkable. He was a stuntman for 30 odd years, then turned to hugely successful character acting. He worked, uncredited, on Gone with the Wind, with the Duke on the Red River and later The Cowboys, on Spartacus, in a chariot in The Ten Commandments, in Papillon, Blazing Saddles and The Outlaw Josey Wales. He tip-toed through film history in an astonishing, almost hidden career. There were two Oscar nominations and, as mentioned, this was the second.
Alvin pootles along the verge of those big country roads, past farms and fields, befriending folk along the way. A pregnant girl (Anastasia Webb is the tentative Crystal), on the run from family, heeds his lesson to his boys. You can break a stick, but you can’t break a bundle, and that’s family. They share what looks to be fairly disgusting food by a campfire. Old Jack watched this first time with the tension of old film grammar, but she doesn’t kill him or steal his stuff, she leaves a bundle of tied sticks as a thank you.
And I guess that’s the rolling surprise of The Straight Story. For all the people who he meets are straight and true: a bus driver is a sweetheart and offers a lift, locals, sat watching their firefolk practise on an old house, offer to take him in when a particularly steep hill leaves him zooming down the road in fear of his life. Lynch gives us sufficient loving close-ups of road surfaces before that point to make it properly scary! Even the mechanics who help – one an old ride-along lawnmower expert (a John Deere 1966 model seems to be something that is loved – presumably there are magazines, conventions and frightening websites) – cut the old man a fair deal. Good character actors on a beautiful road.
Lynch and cinematographer Freddie Francis bring out that beauty without Disneyfying it. Lynch – and old Jack is grateful for this – keeps the weird almost completely at bay. There’s an intrusion when a ranting woman roars out of her car, raging at killing the umpteenth deer on that road that week. It’s strange, and feels a bit like Lynch letting off steam, but lets you enjoy the rest of the film uninterrupted.
But the story is the journey. A road-trip with a noble cause, rich with moments of deeply touching revelation. Old Alvin even has a secret old Jack didn’t see coming. It’s awful, but you feel only its impact on him, and how he needs redemption from it, his mistakes (a boozy period came with meanness) and the estrangement from his brother.
Watch this now. Don’t hesitate. Get the ingrates into your TV room and enjoy.
One last thing, while you’re watching it. Farnsworth had metastasized prostate cancer during the making of The Straight Story. He ended his own life a year later when the pain became what pain becomes. Old Jack was struck on my latest viewing of how the film – the story of a real journey by a brave man – is the valediction through another remarkable journey of another properly brave man.
Oh to be like one of them.