A Minimalist Masterpiece

Images flow before us as soothing as a forest stream: the dusky earth, the sapphire sky, the charcoal-line of the open road, waving fields of buttery corn that shimmer like hair, and the craggy, sun-worn face of an old man who squints from beneath a battered cowboy hat as he chugs slowly down the isolated highway on an ancient tractor-style lawnmower. These are the resplendent colors in the palette of David Lynch’s vivid love poem to the American heartland, The Straight Story.

Lynch’s deeply moving vision of the Midwest is done in a visual language so simple and direct that the resonance of his message takes you by surprise, and you gasp as you experience the giddy rush of being bewitched by a master filmmaker. Like a melancholic memory, Straight overcomes your senses with its comforting yet bittersweet flavor, in the way that the aroma of sour apple might trigger a summertime memory of youth.

Richard Farnsworth, always plainly sublime and possessing an internal glow of matter-of-fact wisdom, plays the soulful Alvin Straight like the Buddha of Iowa. I sense the potential in this film to create a new cult of personality around Farnsworth’s soft-spoken yet intensely riveting man-of-the-earth. It almost seems as the truth and beauty of all creation leaks from his watery blue eyes.

Lynch’s overt message is about family, community, and the ties between all people, even strangers. He presents these ideas via a greatly idealized yet startlingly moving version of America and Americans. Accordingly, the film functions like a fairy tale of a vanished country and its noble people.

The talents of Freddie Francis, one of the truly great working cinematographers, add luminous depth and warm tones that create an atmosphere of melancholic pleasure inherent in every scene. These lush images are perfect counterpoint to Lynch’s painstaking sound design, through which everyday occurrences become acts of God.

There are signature Lynch moments, such as a dark silo that hums with ominous portent straight out of Eraserhead, or shades of Twin Peaks in the woman who flies into a crazed fit because she has killed her 13th deer on the same road. Yet these segments are wisely used as texture and detail, rather than points in and of themselves, as Lynch might have done in another film with different subject matter. Indeed, Straight Story seems to signal some kind of newfound maturity in Lynch’s work, as he displays an almost startling capacity for effective understatement which leads to a near-beatification of the banal — and it works.

The genius in this work radiates from every pore. Its beauty is such that I was repeatedly moved by its progression of tiny moments that snowballed into a film of true magnitude, as if each frame were a scrap in a massive collage that when seen from a distance became one large, startling image that depicted the deeper mysteries of the universe. Bravely, the work then becomes about the tension, interplay, and synergy between elements rather than the elements themselves.

The film’s ending is certainly one of the most perfect finishes in the history of cinema, and is so pregnant with unspoken meaning and feeling, that for a viewer not openly weep with awe at its closure suggests some kind of deep, incurable psychopathology on his or her part.

This film has jumped immediately onto my Top Ten list of 1999. My greatest fear is that this film will be unable to find an audience because of the way that it is marketed. Repeated viewing is certainly demanded, as like a fine wine, The Straight Story can only get better with age.

Bravo, Lynch.