THREE STARS - Wholesome
Without the usual scenes of violence or sex portrayed in many current films, “The Straight Story” meanders through the corn fields of Iowa slowing down our pace and embracing our hearts.
Based on the true life story of Alvin Straight, director David Lynch allows us to join Alvin in his pilgrimage of reconciliation after a ten-year alienation from his brother.
Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) is 73 years old. He lives in a small town in Iowa with his middle-aged daughter and is experiencing debilitating health problems. When a late night call informs him that his brother has had a stroke, Alvin realizes that he must make amends with him before it is too late.
The problem is that he can no longer drive. His vision has deteriorated to the point that he lost his license. His daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) has limited mental ability and so she doesn’t drive either.
With very little dialogue, it soon becomes clear that Alvin intends to ride his lawn mower, pulling a small trailer with supplies from his home in Iowa to see his brother in Wisconsin, a six week journey.
At first, it seems that Alvin is forced into this foolish decision by circumstances, but it soon becomes clear that the difficulty of the journey is the penance his reconciliation with his brother requires.
This is often the case with damaged relationships. What would have needed only a humble apology when it first occurred becomes increasingly demanding every day the dissension remains. Often forgetting the original transgression, the offended emotions require increasing penance before reconciliation is possible.
What is dynamic about “The Straight Story” is that we are not told what the original problem was. All we know is that Alvin and Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) were once close and are now apart. This void of actual details of the problem takes the focus of the film away from the sense or nonsense of such a relational disturbance. Instead, it puts the emphasis on the length to which Alvin was willing to go to be reunited with his brother.
Functioning intuitively as a pilgrim on a spiritual quest, Alvin is also seen fulfilling a priestly role with the people he meets on the way.
The first, a five-month pregnant teenager, joins him by his camp fire in one of the many fields he made home each night. On this night with the skill of a pastor, Alvin allows both his silence and his simple wisdom to weave a moment of profound care into her life: a care which ultimately returns her to the strong support of her family. The quiet wisdom and homespun counsel of that sacred moment by the fire leaves his message to this runaway girl not only on screen but in our hearts as well.
In a later moment, while stranded in the back yard of a friendly couple as twin brothers repair his broken mower, Alvin speaks into their lives the message of the value of being brothers. He then becomes both the confessor and the pastor of a new friend and fellow World War II veteran.
As he sits at the bar drinking milk, Alvin explains that he no longer drinks beer since his pastor helped him get free from a bout of heavy drinking following the war. Explaining that he realized he was drinking to try to forget what happened to him there, his vulnerability opens his new friend to face a long-supressed sorrow of his own.
This, too, becomes a sacred place.
Quietly, with few words but clear communication, these two elderly men enter into a place and a space that is now more than forty years old. Both sharing the sorrows of war, they find a solace and understanding within the new bonds of their mutual respect.
Later on the journey, as Alvin stays in the cemetery of a church, a pastor comes out to him offering the symbolic care of a meal. Although Alvin didn’t need the food, he was wise enough not to reject the offer of nourishment for his soul.
Perhaps the most sacred moment, which is masterfully left to symbolic gestures without the need for much dialogue, is when Alvin pulls up to a dilapidated small house on the edge of a country road, and calls out to his brother. With tense apprehension, the two brothers sit down on the porch and then Lyle realizes that Alvin has driven a lawn mower all that distance just to be with him. Words can never express the power of such a penitent act.
“The Straight Story” is a tale told to the heart and requires its viewers to slow down and experience its depth. In a world where entertainment usually appeals to the eyes and increases the adrenalin, this film calms the soul and satisfies the heart with a message too deep for words.