ⓘ The Straight Story

The Straight Story

ⓘ The Straight Story

The Straight Story is a 1999 biographical road drama film directed by David Lynch. The film was edited and produced by Mary Sweeney, Lynchs longtime partner and collaborator. She co-wrote the script with John E. Roach. The film is based on the true story of Alvin Straights 1994 journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. Alvin is an elderly World War II veteran who lives with his daughter Rose, a kind woman with an intellectual disability. When he hears that his estranged brother Lyle has suffered a stroke, Alvin makes up his mind to go visit him and hopefully make amends before he dies. Because Alvins legs and eyes are too impaired for him to receive a driving license, he hitches a trailer to his recently purchased thirty-year-old John Deere 110 Lawn Tractor, having a maximum speed of about 5 miles per hour and sets off on the 240 miles journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin.

The film was a critical success and garnered audience acclaim, although the overall gross proved less than expected. Reviewers praised the intensity of the character performances, particularly the realistic dialogue which film critic Roger Ebert compared to the works of Ernest Hemingway. It received a nomination for the Palme dOr at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and Farnsworth received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.


1. Plot

Alvin Straight has not shown up to his regular bar meeting with his friends. He is eventually found lying on his floor at home, although he insists that he "just needs a bit of help getting up". His daughter Rose takes her reluctant father to see a doctor, who sternly admonishes Alvin to give up tobacco. He also tells Alvin that he should start using a walker. Alvin refuses. Alvin then learns that his brother Lyle has suffered a stroke. Longing to visit him, but unable to drive, Alvin gradually develops a plan to travel to Mount Zion on his riding lawn-mower and towing a small homemade travel-trailer, to the consternation of his family and friends.

Alvins first attempt fails: after experiencing difficulty starting the old mowers motor, he doesnt get far before the machine breaks down. Alvin arranges for his mower to be transported back home on a flatbed truck, where he takes out his frustrations on the mower with a shotgun blast. At the John Deere dealer, he purchases a newer lawn tractor from a salesman who is generous but describes Alvin as being a smart man, "until now."

Alvin continues on his quest. He passes a young female hitchhiker who later approaches his campfire and says that she could not get a ride. In conversation, Alvin deduces that she is pregnant although this is not physically obvious and has run away from home. Alvin tells her about the importance of family by describing a bundle of sticks that is hard to break. The next day Alvin emerges from the trailer to find that she has left him a bundle of sticks tied together.

Later, a huge group of RAGBRAI cyclists race past him. He later arrives at the cyclists camp and he is greeted with applause. He speaks with them about growing old. When he is asked about the worst part of being old, he replies, "remembering when you was young."

The next day, Alvin is troubled by the massive trucks passing him. He then interacts with a distraught woman who has hit a deer, and is being driven to distraction by the fact that she continually hits deer while commuting, no matter how hard she tries to avoid them. She drives away in a tearful huff, and Alvin, who had started to run short of food, cooks and eats the deer, then mounts the antlers above the rear doorway of his trailer as a tribute to the deer and the sustenance it had provided.

Alvins brakes fail as he travels down a steep hill; he struggles to maintain control of the speeding tractor and finally manages to bring the vehicle to a complete stop. Some people help get Alvins mower and trailer off the road. They later discover that the mower also has transmission problems.

Now beginning to run low on cash, Alvin borrows a cordless phone from a homeowner – gently refusing an invitation to come indoors – and calls Rose to ask her to send him his Social Security check. He then leaves money on the doorstep to pay for his telephone call. A local motorist offers Alvin a ride the rest of the way to Lyles, but Alvin declines, stating that he prefers to travel his own way. An elderly war veteran takes him into town for a drink, and Alvin tells a story about how he is haunted by a memory of accidentally shooting one of his military comrades.

Alvins tractor is fixed and he is presented with an exorbitant bill by the mechanics, who are twins and are constantly bickering. Alvin successfully negotiates the price down, and explains his mission, which he calls "a hard swallow to pride," but "a brother is a brother." The mechanic twins seem to relate to this.

Later, Alvin camps in a cemetery and chats with a priest who recognizes Lyles name and is aware of his stroke. The priest says that Lyle did not mention he had a brother. Alvin replies that "neither one of us has had a brother for quite some time." Alvin wants to make peace with Lyle and is emphatic that what happened ten years ago does not matter. "I say, Amen to that, brother," the priest replies.

The next obstacle Alvin must overcome is apparent engine trouble, just a few miles from Lyles house. Alvin stops in the middle of the road, unsure of how to proceed. A large farm tractor driving by then stops to help, but this time the problem was evidently just a few drops of bad gas, because the lawn-tractors engine sputters to life again after sitting for a few minutes. The gracious farmer then leads the way on his own tractor, to make sure Alvin gets there okay.

Lyles house is dilapidated. Using two canes, Alvin makes his way to the door. He calls for his brother. Lyle invites Alvin to sit down. Lyle looks at Alvins mower-tractor contraption and asks if Alvin had ridden that thing just to see him. Alvin responds simply, "I did, Lyle." The two men sit together silently and look up at the stars.


2. Production

The Straight Story was independently shot along the actual route taken by Alvin Straight, and all scenes were shot in chronological order. Lynch would later call the film "my most experimental movie".

Unlike his prior films or any that would follow, The Straight Story was released by Walt Disney Pictures after a successful debut at Cannes, was given a G rating by the MPAA the only Lynch film to receive such a rating and is the only Lynch film for which Lynch himself did not contribute to the screenplay although it was co-written by his recurring associate, Mary Sweeney. As with many of Lynchs films, there are no chapter markers on the original North American DVD release, because Lynch wants the film to be watched as a whole.

Richard Farnsworth was terminally ill with metastatic prostate cancer during the shooting of the film, which had spread to his bones and caused the paralysis of his legs as shown in the film. He actually took the role out of admiration for Alvin Straight, and astonished his co-workers with his tenacity during production. Farnsworth committed suicide the following year, at the age of 80.


2.1. Production Music

The musical score for The Straight Story was composed by Angelo Badalamenti, continuing a 13-plus year collaboration with Lynch that began with Blue Velvet. A soundtrack album was released on October 12, 1999, by Windham Hill Records.

All music composed and conducted by Angelo Badalamenti.

  • "Farmland Tour"
  • "Laurens, Iowa"
  • "Alvins Theme"
  • "Montage"
  • "Sprinkler"
  • "Roses Theme Variation"
  • "Crystal"
  • "Laurens Walking"
  • "Nostalgia"
  • "Country Waltz"
  • "Final Miles"
  • "Roses Theme"
  • "Country Theme"

3. Reception

The Straight Story was critically acclaimed upon its release, with critics lauding Lynchs uncharacteristic subject matter. Entertainment Weekly described it as a "celestial piece of Americana". The Chicago Tribune wrote of the film, "we see something American studio movies usually dont give us: the simple, unsentimentalized beauty of the rural American Midwestern landscape."

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 96% with an average score of 8.14/10. The websites critical consensus reads, "With strong performances and director David Lynch at the helm, The Straight Story steers past sentimental byways on its ambling journey across the American heartland." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 86 out of 100, based on reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". AllMovie wrote, "David Lynch offers an uncharacteristically straightforward and warmly sentimental approach to his material in this film", calling it "one of his best films".

Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, the first positive review he had ever given for a film by Lynch. He wrote, "The movie isnt just about the old Alvin Straights odyssey through the sleepy towns and rural districts of the Midwest, but about the people he finds to listen and care for him."


4. Awards and honors

The Straight Story was the recipient of 12 awards and 29 nominations.

The film was nominated for the Palme dOr at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. Freddie Francis was nominated for the Golden Frog. Richard Farnsworth earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Alvin Straight; the oldest person ever to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

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