The Straight Story (1999)

The Straight Story (1999)

An unexpectedly gentle tear-jerker from David Lynch that features a stunning central performance

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Maybe the slowest — and sweetest — road movie ever.

What it's about

When the brother he’s not on speaking terms with falls ill, a septuagenarian begins an unusual road trip to make amends before it’s too late.

The take

A family-friendly, Disney-backed movie is not something you’d expect from cinema’s surrealist master, but The Straight Story marks a surprisingly winning stylistic departure for David Lynch. It tells the true story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an ailing 73-year-old who, upon hearing that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke 240 miles away, decides it's time to patch things up. Unable to drive due to poor eyesight, Alvin modifies a ride-on lawn mower and sets off on the six-week-long journey it will take to reach his brother while traveling just five miles an hour.

Lynch’s film is set at a similarly patient pace: contemplative shots of Mid-Western America’s cornfields fade in and out as Alvin chugs along and experiences profound, fleeting connections with the strangers crossing his path. Alvin refuses to accept any offers of a ride: he wants to finish this pilgrimage on his own terms. Angelo Badalamenti’s elegiac score emphasizes just how much this journey means to Alvin — who, in his last chapter of life, uses it both to reflect on all that's come before and treasure every experience, big or small, that the present offers. The sense of this being a swan song for Alvin is always palpable, making The Straight Story deeply moving down to its bones.

What stands out

Richard Farnsworth’s Oscar-nominated performance, which was his last ever. As Alvin, he grounds the film in no-nonsense authenticity, meaning it never feels overly sentimental (in spite of the Disney affiliation). The sad twinkle that’s ever-present in his eyes is totally convincing — we never doubt for a second that this man really has lived out the experiences he talks about (see: his poignant acting in the bar scene). Farnsworth’s performance is full of emotional gravity even if you don’t know the facts of the production: though terminally ill, he came out of retirement for the role — making it a magnificent cinematic farewell on top of everything else.

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