David Lynch's G-Rated Masterpiece
Decent People on the Highway of Life
Which is why David Lynch turned out to be the perfect director for the job, despite all the incredulous eye-raising at the word that he'd made a G-rated family film... for Disney, no less! His name is so synonymous with violence and twisted sex that it's sometimes hard to remember that nearly everything he's done has been about decent people who were seduced, often literally possessed, by an evil force outside themselves. This film's opening, with its idyllic picture-postcard small town, its shockingly vivid colors, and a lazily menacing crane shot, unmistakably announces The Straight Story as a Lynch film--but for once there'll be no Frank Booths or "Bob"s to drag people off to Hell.
That crane glides the camera up to a window through which we hear, but cannot see, something strike the floor. It turns out to be Straight (Richard Farnsworth), fallen and needing to wait for someone to pick him up. His daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) is flustered, but Straight has the carefully husbanded pride of many old men; he refuses to cry out, or even admit to his doctor the seriousness of his condition. When he then learns of his brother's stroke, he figures he must set out alone to patch things up -- which has as much to do with fearing his own mortality as his sibling's. Too nearsighted to drive, too crotchety to consider a bus, Straight selects the riding mower as his only option.
For the next five weeks Straight creeps up the highway, lugging a handmade trailer behind. On the way he encounters a surly runaway who takes his advice and food; a procession of bicycle racers who beautifully appear from nowhere, their spokes whining as they pass; a woman distraught after hitting a deer; and a helpful family who put him up in their backyard and connect him to a pair of less-than-helpful twin mechanics.
This could have all been told with nauseating sweetness, and truth be told, there are too many shots of rows of corn, just as Angelo Badalamenti's simple, haunting score occasionally bursts with overripe bucolicisms. Such feel-good mechanics are put in the background, however, by a restraint, even a respectful distance, that stems from Straight's genteel reserve. Time and again scenes play out that we can only see -- and hear -- from far away, as if it would be impolite to eavesdrop. Even the source of the brothers' falling-out, we (and the priest who asks) are told, is basically none of our business: "Anger. Vanity. You throw those in with liquor and you got two brothers who haven't spoken in 10 years."
In this respect, Lynch could not have asked for a more perfect leading man than Farnsworth. The actor didn't really break into movies until he was already past middle age, so as a result he's acquired none of the mannerisms that can stiffen performers who've outgrown their youthful appeal. Warmth and decency flow from him, though when he grits his teeth at the gust of a passing semi, the discomfort is real.
In fact, perhaps the only way this film could be considered subversive is that at a time when navel-gazing boomers grow ever more chipper about the wonders of each stage they reach in life's journey, Farnsworth unapologetically captures the sadness, as well as the nobility, of growing old; its unpleasant way of weakening and tiring you, and how it leaves you with little but memories and uncertainty. When the youthful bicyclists try to praise him for grabbing life by the horns at his age, he shrugs off their hopefulness of uninterrupted vitality: "The worst part about being old is remembering when you was young."
But subversiveness isn't everything art's about, and frankly it's often overrated. Blue Velvet wasn't great because it pissed off a bunch of moral standard-bearers, and The Straight Story isn't great because it will charm many of those same people. Both achieve greatness thanks to, in their divergent but not too dissimilar ways, an endless fascination with how wondrous and mysterious each and every person can be.