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The Straight Story DVD Review

The Straight Story movie poster The Straight Story

Theatrical Release: October 15, 1999 / Running Time: 112 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: David Lynch / Writers: John Roach, Mary Sweeney

Cast: Richard Farnsworth (Alvin Straight), Sissy Spacek (Rose Straight), Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), John Farley (Thorvald Olsen), Kevin Farley (Harald Olsen), James Cada (Danny Riordan), Anastasia Webb (Crystal), Jane Galloway Heitz (Dorothy), Ed Grennan (Pete), Donald Wiegert (Sig)

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The Straight Story centers not on heterosexuality or directness, but on Alvin Straight, a stubborn 73-year-old man portrayed by Richard Farnsworth. Alvin lives in the little town of Laurens, Iowa with his speech-impaired, mentally-challenged fortysomething daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek). Rising age has dealt him a number of health problems, from emphysema to crippling hip troubles, but Alvin is not worried by his own afflictions. When he gets news, however, that his brother has suffered a stroke, he becomes concerned. Alvin decides that not only must he go visit his sibling -- who he has not spoken to in about a decade -- but he has to make the trip on his own terms.

His own terms, it turns out, entail not riding buses or testing his weakened vision in a car, but buying a 30-year-old John Deere lawnmower to make the roughly 300-mile journey to Mount Zion, Wisconsin.
His plan is unannounced to its destination and discouraged by Rose, but Alvin's strong will emerges victorious and he sets out in this unorthodox way on a trek that will take over a month. For shelter, he has a trailer which he has attached to the mower and is pulling. For food, there is a supply of braunschweiger and other campfire-bound processed meats on ice.

Along the way, he encounters a handful of individuals from all modes of life. There is a teenage runaway who is holding a big secret from her family, a woman who can't seem to avoid driving into deer, a pair of brothers who argue over repairing Alvin's old set of road-unfriendly wheels, a family that puts him up while waiting for the repairs, and so on. In the brief moments he shares with these folks, Alvin gives many of them the greatest gift he has to offer: a taste of the plentiful wisdom and experience his frail, weathered exterior masks. This does not play out as a scripted series of episodic, "cue the sappy music" moments like it might on some so-called inspirational television show. Not everything is neatly resolved, and the supporting cast members feel like real midwestern America people, presumably because many of them are (judging from their lack of other credits).

Through it all, Alvin's journey remains central and it is a big odyssey of uncertainty. Will he make it to his brother's place? Will his brother want to forget the feud and agree to see his old friend? Will his brother even be there? You may spend the entire length of the movie pondering these questions, but they end up being less important than the trip there and what it means.

In the last and perhaps greatest performance of his life, Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, a stubborn old man about to embark on a unique journey. Such a journey calls for transportation, which leads Alvin to turn to Tom the John Deere Dealer (Everett McGill) for his approval on a 30-year-old riding lawnmower.

To put it lightly, the movie takes its time. There is perfect reason for that; the slow dissolves and long-held shots are deliberately paced to match Alvin's life and his trying journey. Even if it requires an awful lot of patience from the viewer, it's easy to appreciate the movie's uniqueness. Typical three-act structure, romantic fulfillment, attractive big-name actors, and a conventional climax are all things you definitely do not find here.
The decision to buck these long-common cinematic trends pays off, allowing this film to stand out from the formula-ridden and predictable fare which grosses much more than this did. Its departure from norms are not a matter of it seeking to rewrite the book on 20th century storytelling; instead, like Alvin mentions, it seems to have learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, letting merely the wheat (the human condition) fuel this interstate voyage in a poignant, emotional way that speaks to viewers.

The Straight Story doesn't comfortably fit into Disney's live action canon; just consider the other two of its kind issued the same year: My Favorite Martian and Inspector Gadget. There's good reason accounting for why Straight is so different a picture. It was independently produced, with financing handled by a pair of French studios. In May of 1999, less than two weeks before the movie debuted at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would distribute it in the United States, Scandinavia, and Australia. A couple more festival screenings led to limited theatrical release that fall, with the movie never playing in more than 200 theaters across the US.

The irony of Disney distributing a film directed by David Lynch under its family-friendly banner is not to be missed. The man behind such twisted works as Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mullholland Drive certainly seems like an odd choice for a wholesome G-rated tale. The difference is that Lynch also penned those dark, boundary-pushing suspense dramas. Here, his contributions are limited to directing (which he does with a tinge of surrealism) and sound design. Straight Story's screenplay marks the debut writing credit for both Mary Sweeney (Lynch's frequent editor and producer, plus earlier this year, his short-term wife) and John Roach.

Of course, part of what distinguishes the film is that it is based on a curious true story. In 1994, the real Alvin Straight indeed made the journey from Laurens to Mt. Zion at a maximum speed of five miles per hour. He died two years later and this movie is dedicated to his memory. Straight's passing surely gave the moviemakers some artistic license to dramatize as they liked, since some of the specifics of the trip would have been known only by him. They do not seem to go wild with the reins, slightly exaggerating a few minor facts but keeping things minimalist and believable. For realism's sake, the movie was shot in chronological order on the actual route that the real Straight took capturing the arrival of autumn in real time. Though Straight didn't like the attention his headline-making road trip got (he turned down appearance offers from David Lettermen and Jay Leno), one gets the feeling (or hopes) that the subject, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, would not have objected to his cinematic immortalization, or at least its wonderful spirit.

Oscar winner Sissy Spacek plays Rose, Alvin's speech-impaired daughter. These Olsen Twins, played by two brothers of comedian Chris Farley, are not about to pull a fast one on Alvin.

Probably the biggest reason for the movie's undeniable worth is Richard Farnsworth's lead performance. His turn -- which outside of the very first scene, anchors every single sequence -- began gaining attention prior to release and the favorable buzz carried over to the awards season early in 2000. Farnsworth would garner nearly a dozen nominations for his realization of the role, from critics societies to festivals to the Golden Globes. He would even claim a spot among the five nominees for the Best Actor Oscar, making him the oldest person ever nominated in that category. Though he would lose out to American Beauty's Kevin Spacey, the honor still put Farnsworth next to winner Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) as the only performers nominated for acting category Oscars in a Disney-branded picture. (Johnny Depp has since joined the class for the Academy's nod to his work in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)

Public kudos aside, Farnsworth's performance is one of the most earnest ever given onscreen. In fact,
Disney Movie Club (Buena Vista Home Entertainment)
calling it a performance seems strange since you never doubt for one second that the former stuntman has indeed lived his entire life as Alvin Straight. Farnsworth died on October 6, 2000, a month before this movie came to DVD, making this his final performance and one of only two he came out of retirement for. I don't think a more fitting finale could have been conceived for him and his talents than The Straight Story. Nor do I think you'll find another film more skillfully carried by a senior citizen than this one.

Two of the biggest characters in this small film are given by individuals who themselves do not appear on scene. I'm referring to the palpable imagery framed by octogenarian cinematographer (and two-time Oscar winner) Freddie Francis in his seemingly final job and the fine score by regular Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti. Both go a great length to bring Alvin's trip to the screen in a lively, identifiable fashion.

Deceptively simple, The Straight Story is one sublime film which stands out not just from its live action Disney brethren, but from cinema as a whole. It is a unique exploration of the medium's possibilities to affect when traditional storylines, pacing, and subjects are eliminated from the picture. Instead of opting to juggle many characters or threads, focusing on a single significant event in an old man's life ends up granting importance to every shot and every second. The result is that The Straight Story leaves a bigger impression on the viewer than most films and its journey will haunt in a lasting way that far denser films rarely do.

Buy The Straight Story on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English
Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 7, 2000
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
(Reduced from $32.99)
White Keepcase


Thankfully, The Straight Story is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio and it has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions, narrowly making the opening cut of Disney's much-awaited anamorphic support on new titles. The movie's visuals are of the utmost importance, which makes this largely pleasing transfer all the more praiseworthy. Outside of minor artifacting observed in one scene, the wonderful photography appears clean, crisp, and without issue. That's expected on a big studio film, but on one independently produced for $9 million, it's not guaranteed. Even the passing of six autumns has not rendered the disc any less than terrific in the picture department.

An English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is your only audio option and while the soundtrack is subdued, it is certainly sufficient. In several long shots, the audio (designed by Lynch) is intentionally kept at a distance to match the visuals; dialogue in these scenes remains barely audible at normal listening levels but to a degree that hearing what is spoken seems optional. Other dialogue remains fully intelligible in spite of some of the characters' old midwestern folk accents or other inhibitions. The most prominent element of the track, Angelo Badalamenti's wonderfully enveloping score, comes through perfectly.

Alvin sits with Danny Riordan (James Cada), a man who warmly offers the septuagenarian shelter while he waits for his lawnmower to be fixed. Alvin and Rose enjoy a thunderstorm together.


There is just one bonus feature, but it is a good one. It is the original theatrical trailer (2:10), which aptly previews the movie with plenty of celebratory critic quotes and a fine selection of key moments.

The sepia-toned still menus are an exercise in minimalism. There are just two listings on the Main Menu
aside from "Play": the trailer and "Captions", which lets you activate or deactivate the optional English subtitles. That's right, there are no Disney sneak peeks and, more surprisingly, no scene selections.

For that matter, there are no chapter stops, the reasoning of which is outlined in a brief note from director David Lynch found inside the case. He states, "It is my opinion that a film is not a book - it should not be broken up. It is a continuum and should be seen as such." From reader feedback, it appears that Lynch has only enforced this philosophy on two of his other movies' DVDs. That he does on The Straight Story is not a big deal. For one thing, most players will resume from the point left off during an incomplete viewing. For another, fast forwarding up to 16 times speed will still get you to any point of the movie pretty quickly. So if you're looking to outsmart David Lynch and break up his film precisely because he tried to discourage it, you're in luck. Truth be told, though, like most movies, The Straight Story works best if you can commit to it and give it your undivided attention for its runtime.

The enduring image of "The Straight Story": the old man on his lawnmower. Alvin tells it like it is.


The Straight Story is not a movie that will appeal to everybody's tastes, but most with enough patience and open-mindedness to watch this unorthodox drama will find it unusually rewarding. The film is asked to speak for itself on DVD, but in this instance that's apparently done per the director's wishes rather than studio neglect. The feature presentation is plenty satisfactory, the trailer is a nice inclusion, and post SRP-drop, the selling price is reasonable. All things considered, this little treat of a film merits a solid recommendation on disc.

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Reviewed October 23, 2006.