Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Real Lawnmower Man

Film: The Straight Story
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

I tend to like David Lynch’s films, but I also tend to want a long time between them. Lynch is great in small doses, not so much as a constant diet. The Straight Story is one that I wasn’t sure how to approach. On the one hand, this is a Lynch film distributed by Disney and given a G-rating. On the other hand, this is the film that Lynch declares is his “most experimental.” When someone like Lynch says that, there are a couple of possible reactions. If he’s telling the truth, we’re in for a rough trip. Then again, there’s always the chance that he’s just messing with us.

The Straight Story is one of those titles that has multiple meanings. It is, in fact, a straight story. There’s no rising action here, no complications on the basic plot. There’s something set in motion at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the film gets us from that to the end. It’s also the David Lynch film that is the most direct in terms of its narrative. And it’s also the story of Alvin Straight (played here by Oscar nominee Richard Farnsworth).

Alvin lives in Laurens, Iowa, in the northwest part of the state with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), who has a significant stutter and may or may not have some mental disability. It’s hinted at at times, but never made specifically clear. Alvin collapses one day and Rose makes him go to the doctor. The doctor tells him that he needs surgery and needs to quit smoking and that he should also start using a walker. Alvin argues against all of these points, but agrees to start using a second cane to compensate for his arthritic hip. Shortly after this, he learns that his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke.

This is the driving force behind the narrative. We soon learn that Alvin and Lyle haven’t spoken to each other in a decade. We never learn precisely what came between them, but we do find out that it was personal, bad, “unforgivable,” and involved alcohol. Confronted mildly with his own mortality and with the fragility of his brother, Alvin decides that he needs to patch things up with Lyle. There are some problems, though. The first is that Lyle lives a good 250 miles or so away in Wisconsin. The second is that Alvin can’t drive and refuses to let anyone else drive him.

The solution is to hook up a trailer to his riding mower and head out on the highway. He fails the first time when his ancient mower breaks down. He tries again with a “new” mower, one that is actually 30 years old but new to him. The rest of the film is more or less Alvin Straight driving from his small town to where his brother lives. This is a trip that would take about five hours by car, but by riding mower takes well over a month. Along the way, Alvin camps out, living in the trailer he’s pulling. He also meets up with other people, counselling a pregnant runaway, helping a woman who has hit a deer on the highway, and even getting a bickering pair of twins to calm down a little.

Alvin also deals with a few problems of his own, like not having brakes on steep hills and having transmission problems. He has to deal with weather, with dwindling funds, and with his own health problems. And his own stubbornness is a problem, too. Alvin won’t accept a ride from anyone, won’t accept a bit of help that he can’t pay for. And for most of the trip, he’s completely on his own, unable to contact Rose or anyone else.

David Lynch is very much an acquired taste, but The Straight Story is the sort of film that I think just about anyone can get. There’s nothing to get here—it’s an incredibly straightforward narrative that relies a great deal on the performances that we get. Richard Farnsworth is completely believable in the role, and there’s a particular beauty to this that is almost indescribable. Alvin Straight is frustrating in many ways, but also noble in certain ways, and dispenses a sort of wisdom that is very subtle. Like many Lynch characters, there’s something a little off about him, but in this case, it doesn’t feel like affectation. It feels real, like this is how the man was (since this is based on a true story).

And ultimately, that’s the value of The Straight Story. There is a singular beauty to this film that is hard to describe. There’s a purity to the story that is refreshing and wonderful and lovely to experience. The ending, which is handled with the same minimal conversation that much of the film is, is emotionally staggering, the kind of thing that will make even the hardest and stoniest of hearts melt just a touch.

I liked this a lot. I’m very pleased to have seen it.

Why to watch The Straight Story: It’s surprisingly beautiful.
Why not to watch: It’s the most un-Lynchiest David Lynch film ever.


  1. The most unlynchian David Lynch film. I thought Farnsworth was terrific. Everything felt really in this film.Harry Dean Stanton was a nice surprise at the end.

    1. I agree. Stanton is only in the film for a minute or two, but he conveys a lot of regret and understanding in those few minutes. It's a beautiful moment when he realizes that Alvin has journied hundreds of miles on a lawnmower to visit him, and it's all done with his face.