The unfortunate part for me is that movies like this, and before that, Sling Blade, were only in arthouse theaters that are in downtown Washington, DC, and I really have a problem with driving 25-30 miles to pay $10 for 2 hours of joy, and possibly that same amount of time spent in traffic trying to get in and out of DC. If you want to call it laziness, I’ll admit to that also, but I think my first excuse holds a lot more weight. It’s gotten better lately, but there’s still some work to be d…ne. Several years ago, there was a muted, but powerful push for a G-Rated film directed by David Lynch (yes, of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks fame) to receive Oscar nominations, and the film defined the “has universal critical support but no one saw it” catchphrase. When this was available to rent, I did so, and found myself feeling good and happy, something a David Lynch film isn’t supposed to do I thought. David Lynch films make you say, “What the hell did I just see?”
The film is based on the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, The Natural), a 73-year-old Iowan who has horrible vision and cannot walk without the support of canes. Living with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter), he receives a call that his brother Lyle has had a stroke. He and Lyle hadn’t spoken in almost 10 years, and Alvin, realizing that this may very well be the last chance either of them has to see each other, decides he will go to Wisconsin and make peace with Lyle. The problem is that due to his health, combined with Rose’s incapacity to drive (she is a bit slow, according to Alvin), forces Alvin to decide to drive the 300 miles across Iowa on a riding mower. The journey isn’t completely flawless; the first mower craps out on him (and Alvin puts it out of its misery the old-fashioned way), but he does go back out again, and the film is based on his journey, and the people he met along the way.
Everything about it speaks to such emotional and genuine tones that the film, while a bit slow in its pacing, really makes you appreciate how long the trip was and how touching the story is. While parts of the film were shot on Alvin’s route, there is some dramatic license taken with the actual events, like the fact that Alvin was apparently more cantankerous in real life that portrayed in the film. What few speaking performances there are, are enjoyable, and Farnsworth’s performance makes you question how Alvin could have been so disagreeable to begin with. You’re convinced that every word he speaks is filled with such honesty and kindness that you find yourself marveling that such qualities exist anymore. When his 2nd mower almost causes him to lose control going downhill, he does manage to control things and pulls into a resident’s front yard. Alvin asks to use the phone, and he refuses to go inside to use it (despite the offer to come in), and he also leaves the phone at the front door with money for the call he made to Rose, both minor impositions that would be unnecessary of any repayment.
Farnsworth was 79 when he played Alvin (and recalled with humor how it was nice to play younger characters), and received the Best Actor award at Cannes, and was also nominated for a Best Actor Oscar also. Even more amazing that he was in his seventh decade of work (his first work was doing stunts in the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races). What resonates even more now since the movie was released was Farnsworth’s own battle with cancer while the movie was being made (he was walking with two canes himself at that point), and his decision to take his own life by gunshot less than a year after the film was released. The Straight Story is outstanding work from Lynch, and provides one of the greatest cinematic swan songs in Farnworth’s performance, both of which should be seen to be appreciated.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track in a winner here. Longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s score, with numerous stringed instruments as its focus, is shown off with amazing clarity, as the bass in the theme song even manages to briefly show off the subwoofer. The main sound in the movie after the score is the sound of Alvin’s mower, so while the 5.1 track may come as a bit of a surprise, everything is mixed well, and the surrounds are active enough with the ambient sounds to make it seem like the 5.1 track isn’t a waste of space.
Having gotten that complaint out of the way, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks stunning. Knowing that the film is both limited in dialogue, and set primarily on the roads of Iowa and Wisconsin, the cinematography brings a renewed sense of beauty and awe that made me marvel even after seeing other films that have been set in the cornfields of Iowa (particularly Field of Dreams). The colors are so sharp and vivid that in some panning shots, even when the sun hits the camera lens (is solar flares the right phrase?), you’ll almost want to shield your eyes.
David Lynch is becoming Steven Spielberg in the way he avoids putting a huge amount of extras on his DVDs, if he decides to put any on at all. Aside from the film of course, just the trailer appears on this disc, and that’s it. And when I say that’s it, I mean it. There aren’t any chapter stops in the film either; this disc sets a new standard for barebones releases. There is an insert bearing Lynch’s signature explaining the reason for the 112-minute chapter, but considering how plain this release is, why even bother with one to begin with?
Despite the strange, bordering on obnoxious, decisions made by Lynch and others in the production of this disc, the film is magnificent, and the video and audio presentations help make it easy to recommend renting, and fans of the film should pick it up, as I’ve got a feeling that this will unfortunately not be double-dipped.
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