Wednesday, November 24, 1999

'The Straight Story:' A simple movie about people




BY MARGARET A. McGURK
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        No one would ever have expected David Lynch — the creative mind behind Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet — to cotton to a story like this one.

        The Straight Story is a simple, G-rated tale. No one dies, no one curses, no one gets killed or tortured.

        But the director's immense skills are fully evident. This is a work of great beauty and insight, illuminated by Mr. Lynch's eye for magic in reality. His fascination with the emotional universes buried in the way things look fills the screen.

        Working from a polished, gimmick-free screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, Mr. Lynch turns The Straight Story into a minimalist masterpiece. The film is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old Iowa man who decided one day in 1994 that he needed to see his ailing, estranged brother some 300 miles away in Wisconsin.

        Trouble was, Alvin (Richard Farn sworth) could not drive and had no one to take him. So he fitted out his riding lawn mower with a trailer and hit the road. His first attempt ended with a blown engine; he replaced the machine and forged on, despite the misgivings of his his mildly disabled daughter (Sissy Spacek).

        The people he meets and the sights he sees on his way are the meat of the story, along with the subtle journey inside a man who is recognizing his own mortality.

        The entire film is informed by Mr. Lynch's signature focus on how the most ordinary things look. He captures the haunting beauty of the Midwest with a view far from the ground. Some of the film's most enthralling moments seem to be shot from midair, where the camera captures long, languid, sweeping shots of a landscape where giant machines sail like ships through fields of grain. Credit cinematographer Freddie Francis, plus a movie score by Angelo Badalamenti.

        Finally, though, it is the people that Alvin meets and befriends in his unassuming way that makes the film. The moment when he shows up on his brother's porch and the two men make their quiet amends is a model of the power in simplicity.

        Mr. Farnsworth (The Grey Fox) delivers a pure, unaffected performance that achieves astonishing power that emanates like light from his expressive, weathered face.

        The Straight Story is not an eventful film; the plot is not its point. This is a story about the dignity of humans without regard to circumstances as trivial as wealth and about the noble effort to repent, to forgive, to connect.

        The movie is a gift. Don't turn it down.

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