THE LAWNMOWER MAN
For cry-ay, he stubbornly made up his mind. 73 year-old Alvin Straight is determined to travel and see his estranged brother Lyle, who recently suffered a stroke. Rose (Sissy Spacek), Alvin’s concerned daughter, points out some hindrances to the old geezer. First, at his old age, Alvin has health problems of his own. His lungs are damaged from smoking. His freshly injured hips require him to walk with two canes. Furthermore, Lyle is all the way in Mount Zion, Wisconsin — some 370 miles away from Laurens, Iowa. It’s a lengthy distance he cannot cover by a car, since Alvin’s poor eyesight prevents him from driving. To all these obstacles, Alvin responds: “Rose, darlin’, I’m not dead yet.”
Alvin’s solution is a riding lawnmower, which will haul a trailer of supplies. His unusual mode of transport might be slow, but it will still take him from one place to another. Alvin is not much in a hurry, but the personal journey is very meaningful to him. He has not spoken to his brother after a vicious fight six years prior. The trek is his big display of amends. He has to make it all on his own. He doesn’t want his daughter to tag along or for anybody to drive him there.
“The Straight Story” is a clear-cut, straight-forward movie. This is an unexpected effort from director David Lynch, who is known for bizarre cult masterpieces like “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.” He shows here that while he’s famous for conjuring creepiness and discomfort, he is just as good in showing tenderness. This is a film enriched by its gentle quality. The leisure pace, soft folksy music, and the stunning visuals of the American heartlands all contribute to a soaring and soothing viewing. Impatient viewers might grow restive, but I like a movie that knows how to breathe and take its time. Geography-wise, “The Straight Story” has a way of creating space, but the film also has a way expanding hearts and minds.
Veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination, portrays Alvin Straight. With distinct blue eyes (sometimes twinkling, sometimes misty), he gives a performance that I can best described as genuinely touching. Movies tend to cast the old wise men as poetic figures who recite Yoda-like sayings. Farnsworth, on the other hand, makes Alvin real, grounded, and plain-spoken. As Alvin meets different faces from different places, he is more about sharing life stories, rather than doling out life lessons. If he imparts advice, he comes off sincere and honest. But what I love about Alvin above all is that he is humbled by life itself. He finds strength and peace in it. Meanwhile, most of us see life as a journey of getting what we want. It’s a restless viewpoint, making us act selfish and get caught up in trivial matters. Sometimes we need a new perspective, such as looking up at the stars (the film’s opening and closing shots) to remind us that we’re a small part of a bigger and grander scheme of wonder.
Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Everett McGill, and Harry Dean Stanton
Rated G for general audiences