Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.12: David Lynch's The Straight Story

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director's body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don't. July's director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 92 (A)

It doesn’t sound much like a David Lynch movie on paper, does it? 1999’s The Straight Story was released to mostly glowing reviews, but the years since have seen its dismissal among many David Lynch fans as the least Lynchian film- “the strangest thing about it is that there’s nothing strange about it”, more or less. Don’t be fooled. The Straight Story might be Lynch’s most restrained movie, but it’s also a film that no one else could have made as well, as well as his most beautiful and humanistic film since 1980’s The Elephant Man.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is a 73-year-old man who lives with his mentally-handicapped daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Iowa. Alvin has a number of health problems- failing eyesight, difficulty walking, early emphysema- but when he learns that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke, he decides that he has to visit him in order to make amends before his death. Alvin cannot drive, and Rose cannot drive him, so he gets creative: he travels 240 miles to Wisconsin on his tractor.

It’s a simple premise for a simple film, but just because Walt Disney’s name is on the film doesn’t mean that Lynch is working for-hire. A number of Lynch’s biggest influences are still present, albeit in a far more restrained fashion. You want Fellini-esque eccentrics? The small town folks Alvin encounters fit right in with the odd but winning locals in Twin Peaks, complete with some nice low-key comedy (“aw, geez, Alvin, that’s an awful good grabber”). You want Hitchcockian suspense? The stakes are at their highest as Alvin’s journey across the Midwest could turn to a life-or-death situation at any point. You want Bergman-style drama? It’s less austere, but the story of a man traveling to meet his estranged brother fits right into Lynch’s Bergman influence. You want a surreal Luis Bunuel premise? There is a man traveling across the country on a tractor.

All things considered, there’s plenty to distinguish this as a David Lynch film if one really pays attention. Lynch has always been gifted using sound on film, and The Straight Story is no exception. The film opens with a long take that brings tension through its silence and simplicity- we’re not sure what’s going on, but something is wrong, and when we hear a crash, we know someone’s in trouble. Lynch does an even better job photographing Farnsworth’s reactions to the world around him- his discomfort in the doctor’s office, his concern when he sees a car accident, and his complicated, mixed reaction when he learns his brother has had a stroke. The way Lynch drags the journey out to interminable degrees is nearly as effective in its suspense as something like Blue Velvet- this journey means the world for Alvin, and we just want him to succeed. And the film is filled with some of Lynch’s most lyrical images- Alvin and Rose in front of a grain silo at night, Alvin driving slowly but surely down the middle of a road, and simple shots of the American Midwest landscape. Coupled with Angelo Badalamenti’s simple but wonderful folksy score, this is filmmaking to be reckoned with.

 The image that gets me the most? One scene shows Alvin’s run-in with a young woman who ran away from home after she found out she was pregnant- they’ll hate her, she things. Alvin tells the old story of how one twig can be snapped, but a bundle of twigs cannot, and that’s family. It’s debatably a clich├ęd moment mitigated by Alvin’s firm belief in the statement, but it’s turned into something truly moving the morning after the campfire, when Alvin wakes up to find the woman gone, having left a bundle of twigs tied together in front of his camp. It’s a simple moment, but a highly effective one.

Sissy Spacek has always been my pick for the best actress of her generation (eat it, Streep fans), and she does a good job of making Rose’s speech impediment seem like more than just a stunt performance; she fits in well with Lynch’s canon of lovable eccentrics. But for the most part, this is Farnsworth’s show, and rightfully so. Farnsworth was a well-respected character actor, but by this point in his life he had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer and was in unbelievable pain during the making of the film (he would commit suicide to keep from wasting away a year later). That pain shows, but so does Farnsworth’s extraordinary commitment. Here is a man who pushes through considerable difficulty out of a single-minded focus and desire. Farnsworth beautifully underplays Alvin’s stubbornness, his weathered face and expressiveness providing all the information we need. That he's also a warm and funny personality is a bonus.

The Straight Story is another road movie like Wild at Heart, but it’s a much more measured and less frantic film than its predecessor, not to mention more effective. If the former film shows the worst sides of America, The Straight Story shows America at its best. Lynch might be a weirdo, but he’s a weirdo with an enormous amount of affection for small towns behind all of that surrealism. He shows the Midwest as a place filled with good people whose general happiness doesn’t completely negate their dissatisfaction and sadness. Alvin in particular is a man whose past has been fraught with difficulty- hellish battles in World War II, crippling alcoholism, seeing Rose’s children taken away from her. But there’s enough goodness in Alvin’s life to get him through it all. When Alvin finally meets Lyle at the end of the film, the bitterness between them is gone. Here are two men who have known each other their whole lives, who “talked each other through growing up”, and who, at the bottom of it all, care about each other deeply. That their final scene together features no big yelling Oscar moments (though Farnsworth got a well-deserved Best Actor nomination) but rather a simple, quiet reconciliation is all the more rewarding.

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