National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Surrealist Director Tells a Straight Story

BY John Prizer

November 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/14/99 at 2:00 PM


Up until 15 years ago, Walt Disney Co. made nothing but family films. But new management jettisoned almost all the old standards. The many Catholics who boycott Disney for movies such as Priest and Kids will nonetheless be heartened to know that occasionally, the company does something right.

The Straight Story is that rare thing, a live-action release that the company's founder would have been proud of. Cutting-edge director David Lynch (Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) doesn't abandon his expected fondness for the surreal and the grotesque. But for the first time these obsessions are placed at the service of a quiet family tale about reconciliation.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is a 73-year-old widower who learns that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke. The two siblings haven't seen each other in 10 years because of a fallout caused by selfishness and drinking, “a story as old as Cain and Abel.” He decides to heal the breach. “I want to sit with him and look up at the stars, like we used to, so long ago,” he declares.

The opening images are vintage Lynch. Haunting, melancholy shots of Iowa wheat fields and a small farm town are juxtaposed with closer angles of a fat, wrinkled, elderly woman who tans herself while feeding her face with cookies and lemonade. But, surprisingly, this mildly satirical look at middle-American normality doesn't conceal the deviant moral corruption the director usually favors. Instead we are treated to an affirmation of all that's good in human nature — a vision of the underbelly of rural life in which generosity and compassion leap out from behind the menacing shadows.

Alvin lives with his grown daughter (Sissy Spacek), who has a speech impediment and likes to paint bird houses. Since he no longer has a driver's license, he decides to navigate his power lawn mower cross country to Wisconsin, where his brother resides. The suspense is generated by wondering whether he'll get there and what he'll find if he ever does make it.

Like most road movies, the dramatic action is episodic rather than tightly constructed. As Alvin makes his way across a small piece of what's left of the American frontier, he meets a gallery of typical Lynch eccentrics. He must stop for a slightly hysterical woman who's killed 14 deer by accident with her car, and a pair of constantly bickering twins are hired to repair his vehicle.

One of the most memorable vignettes is Alvin's encounter with a local parish priest. When he camps overnight in front of a Catholic cemetery, the cleric brings him food and listens sympathetically as he pours out his heart.

Lynch and screenwriters Mary Sweeney and John Roach have based their movie on real people. There's an elegiac, end-of-an-era tone to this story of a stubborn, old man with a cowboylike spirit, who learns to depend on the kindness of strangers. The narrative rhythms may be too slow for viewers who've grown up on video games or MTV. But for those who will take the time, The Straight Story is a rewarding experience.

— John Prizer