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The Straight Story

#200 - The Straight Story
David Lynch, 1999

An old man decides to use his ride-on lawnmower to travel in order to travel interstate and visit his ill brother.

It would be easy to write off The Straight Story because it takes an auteur like Lynch and seemingly neuters his capacity for striking and unnerving surrealism by tethering him to a Disney-produced G-rated true-story film like this. Fortunately, one of Lynch's main strengths as a filmmaker is being able to bring sufficient levels of depth and characterisation to even the least likely of characters - his tendency to work on projects with small-town settings also gives him a good understanding of how to capture the inhabitants' particular quirks without being patronising or mocking. Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, the elderly man at the centre of the narrative. Given how the film is an appropriately straightforward road movie where Alvin is frequently on his own or interacting with new people in virtually each scene, it helps that Farnsworth more than holds his own by playing a likeable gentleman who gets along with just about everyone he meets but who carries enough personal demons to cast a shadow over the film's seemingly mawkish premise. This isn't a film that depends on character-based conflicts to stay interesting - none of the people Alvin encounters are even remotely malicious towards him, with the closest they get to opposing him is trying to change his mind over traveling by lawnmower. There is the occasional external circumstance that delays his journey, and though they do feel like they might be stretching the film out unnecessarily (such as the sequence where his old mower dies and he is forced to buy a new one), they don't feel like major obstacles and instead result in more good moments than bad ones.

Aside from Farnsworth's deservedly Oscar-nominated turn as Alvin, the mostly-unknown cast deliver believable performances that occasionally edge into Lynch's trademark weirdness but never enough to clash with the film's established mood (of note is Sissy Spacek as Alvin's adult daughter, whose mental disability results in a pronounced verbal tic peppered throughout every line). The filmmaking may not have a lot of Lynch's usual style but that only serves the film better, while regular Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti also veers into new territory by composing an appropriately rustic score with an emphasis on acoustic guitar. Though The Straight Story may be a little too protracted even for such a relatively easy-going story as this one, it's still a very well-rounded film and definitely worthy of anyone's attention independent of their opinion of Lynch. It's a fundamentally warm, humourous, touching film that definitely earns its sentimental value without resorting to cheap tactics.