Sunday, August 22, 2010

Retro Review: The Straight Story (1999)

Having finally seen David Lynch's oddity (now that's a first) The Straight Story (1999), my admiration for him is at an all-time high. I have berated the dung that was Dune (1984), which then reminded me that he really is an acquired taste - and it made me wonder how I acquired it in the first place. The answer lied here.

The Straight Story is on paper one of the most unlikely-to-be-made films - an old man travels 317 miles across Iowa and into Wisconsin to visit his stroke-stricken brother ... on his lawnmower. It is completely devoid or irony (very much like Mike Leigh's also brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky) or suspense. There is an element of pseudo-danger in the scene where the engine gives way while going downhill. And that's about it. Along the way he meets and depends on the kindness of strangers and finally makes it to his brother's decrepit old hut.

It is taxing on the viewer (I actually watched it with my mom and when I told her what it would be about, she didn't want to watch it. Now it's one of her favourite films of all time) - most of the running time is spent on helicopter shots of endless fields with combines and the dusty remains they leave behind. It then cuts to Richard Farnsworth's Alvin Straight going along the side roads of rural Iowa at about 2 mph. Strictly speaking, it is boring as a form of entertainment.

Yet, it is absolutely brilliant. Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek (as his live-in daughter with a speech impediment) are marvelous, as is the 'brother' Lyle Farnsworth (played by a famous character actor). Even though Lynch's script veers away from any sort of danger that Alvin may have faced on his journey, it still keeps you guessing as to what he will face next. He stops at random places, talks to random people and at these moments Alvin's past is slowly revealed: that he was married once, that half of his children died prematurely, that he fought in the Second World War, that he hasn't spoken to his brother for 10 years. Other more revealing, character-making stories are told and yet all this expository dialogue feels very natural - it feels like a folk tale.

Credit has to go to Farnsworth - his performance is one for the ages. He is Alvin Straight. At one point he says to a man who has helped him fix his lawnmower: "You are a kind man talking to a stubborn man." When he says this, his eyes sparkle with every syllable - you absolutely, without reservation, believe what he says. That is good acting. I'm reluctant to say this, and the awards are not how a film should be measured, but thinking about Kevin Spacey's turn in American Beauty (which swept pretty much all the acting awards that year), it makes me sick to my stomach that we favour and praise derivative and 'showy' acting over this. I loved Spacey in American Beauty, which is one of my favourite films, but every nuance of Farnsworth's acting is a million miles 'better', whatever that implies.

Credit should also go to Lynch - this is one of his least Lynchian films. But there are still moments of that bizarre vision that creeps in, like the scene where Sissy Spacek looks out the window and sees a ball bouncing on the sidewalk, followed by a small child. He picks it up, turns back and just stands there for a few seconds. He then walks off, leaving a teary-eyed woman staring at the now empty space. Even though what that scene implies is obvious (and later on more details are provided in a pure Lynchian exposition-flashback-overlay sequence), that dark, gloomy feeling that Lynch peppers all his films is ever so evident.

Finally, the ending. I was sobbing like a little kid - it was only three lines of dialogue, which contained only one proper sentence. It may have been a little manipulative, but at that moment I was more than happy to be manipulated.

The Straight Story is an incredibly slow film, with hardly any 'events'. But if you want a film with the biggest of hearts and some of the best acting you will ever see on screen, then it's definitely worth watching.

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