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Case Number 00875

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The Straight Story

Disney // 1999 // 112 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // November 28th, 2000

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All Rise...

The Charge

I want to sit with him and look up at the stars, like we used to, so long ago.

Opening Statement

Based on the true story of Alvin Straight is David Lynch's The Straight Story. One of the very best films of 1999, The Straight Story is one of those movies that everyone can like and feel good it. It is honest, moving, quirky and funny. Presented on DVD with a very good transfer and a surprisingly effective 5.1 mix, the movie is a typical, overpriced bare bones release from Disney.

Facts of the Case

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), has lead a hard but full life. In the twilight of his years he now has trouble both walking and seeing. Receiving the news that his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke, Alvin is faced with a difficult choice. The two have not spoken in over 10 years, but Alvin wishes there to be peace between the two brothers who were once very close. Swallowing a large chunk of his pride, Alvin decides he want to travel from his home in Iowa to his brother's home is Wisconsin. Unable to drive because of his vision, he is also not able to have his daughter, the mildly retarded Rose (Sissy Spacek), drive him. So he devises a solution that speaks volumes of how he feels about family. He hooks up an old John Deere riding lawn mower and makes a trip that will cover over 300 miles and six long weeks on the road. Along the way he runs into many people who cannot help but be touched by this determined man, and in the process he teaches these people about themselves and about life. It is also a journey that will allow Alvin the face his own doubts and problems, leaving him a better person for his travel.

The Evidence

Great films are such a mysterious and wondrous event. Never knowing where, when or how they will appear, great movies, when they do indeed arrive, are causes for celebration. Well, break out the party favors and the bubbly because The Straight Story is truly great American cinema. Who could have imagined that a film so quiet, so much about honor, living, growing old and the blood that binds families together would have come from the modern master of the twisted, David Lynch (Wild At Heart, Eraserhead)?

The most adult of all G rated films ever released by the House that the Mouse built, The Straight Story possesses a great many of the quirks usually associated with the movies of David Lynch. The Lynch wit and sense of black humor is certainly front and center, with the film being populated by some pretty bizarre characters but like the title of the movie, Lynch plays it straight, never allowing the other shoe to drop. He treats the people that populate this movie with great respect, balancing the fact that strange stuff does often occur but never going too far, never allowing the characters to become caricature. In the process, Lynch has directed his most mature and assured film yet. Unlike most Lynch movies, The Straight Story carries with it a great deal of warmth and affection for the people who carry the story forward. A great deal of that warmth and affection comes from the screenplay of John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Their dialogue never hits a false note, with everyone sounding natural and real. Like the images, the words have a lovely economy to them that fit the characters and the situations like a glove.

At the center of it all is Richard Farnsworth (Misery, The Natural), who turns in the performance of a lifetime. Much has been written of the cancer Farnsworth had and the intense pain he went through during the filming of this movie. With that pain growing worse and causing him to recently take his own life, it forces The Straight Story to stand as an elegy to the man and his film career. Decades of life and pain are written across Farnworth's face, with every crease and wrinkle acting as a road map for the character and his journey. It is a map Director Lynch was wise to follow closely. Lynch's film made be quiet in tone but it is epic in what it is trying to say thus for the success of such a film the central performance is key. Farnsworth is more than up to the task laid before him. Fransworth's presence towers over and permeates every frame of The Straight Story. As portrayed by late actor, who was nominated and robbed of the 1999 Best Actor Oscar, Alvin Straight is as real as anyone reading this but is also a character almost of myth. With his quest to see his brother and the reasons behind it, Straight is an American of a forgotten age. A man with enough grit, determination and smarts to set out to do the right thing, letting nothing turn him off the path he has chosen. Straight is the man most of us wish we could be and a man that, at the very least, most us wish we had in our lives. Farnsworth handles and delivers the wisdom of the character with refreshing honesty that never becomes coy or overly sentimental. There is a wry, homespun charm to his performance that makes it seem as if he was not really acting. In the process he gave one of the best performances of the last decade and a worthy one for which this actor to be remembered.

Its almost easy to forget there are other actors in The Straight Story, but there are a more than a few worth mentioning. Certainly Sissy Spacek (Blast From The Past, Coal Miner's Daughter), as Alvin's mildly retarded daughter Rose is a standout. Spacek uses the mental limitations of her character as a springboard for her performance. She fleshes out a woman who is far from simple, who carries almost limitless pain in her existence but also harbors great affection and hope in her life, due in no small part to the love of her father. Spacek takes what could easily have been a cardboard cutout of a role and makes her real and, there is that word again, honest. It is very solid work from an actor we don't see nearly enough of. James Cada (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Grumpier Old Men) is also very good as Danny Riordan, a man who offers a hand of friendship to Alvin when his lawnmower has mechanical problems. Once more, there is not a coy look or a false tone to his work. As Riordan, Cada gives us the picture of a man we should all be so lucky to meet, in trouble and need or not. Finally, no movie with Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Paris, Texas) can be all bad and if the movie just happens to be very good, well so much the better. Stanton is saved for the final scene and has very little dialogue, but every word counts, with his delivery of the movie's question causing me to break out in tears one final time. Its always good to see Stanton, and watching The Straight Story, I was left to wonder when he will get the kind of role Lynch gave to Farnsworth here.

Behind the camera and off screen The Straight Story also boasts very strong work. Certainly a great deal of the quiet brooding tone of the film is set by the cinematography of Freddie Francis (Cape Fear, Glory, The Elephant Man). Francis, who was also a veteran director with my beloved Hammer Studios, captures a lonely but also lovely America. With the rolling hills that never end and the shimmering fields of America's heartland, Francis' camera gives us a sprawling country that really shows how vast and difficult Alvin Straight's journey was.

In addition to the strong work turned in by cast and crew it is the score of Lynch veteran Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Wild at Heart) that ties everything together. Badalamenti's music can only be summed up as American. It is strong and complex, yet also wistful and delicate. His compositions serve as a perfect counterpoint to the action occurring onscreen. If only Disney had supplied an isolated music track for Badalamenti's wonderful work, I would have been much happier with the disc.

In a film such as The Straight Story, where the rolling farmland of America can be considered a supporting player the image presented is of the utmost importance. Colors and flesh tones are strong and natural with very strong contrast and the picture shows no edge enhancement to speak of. Blacks are solid, with no bleed or shimmer, while shadow detail has great clarity and depth. Source material is of pristine nature and the picture shows no disturbing nicks or scratches.

For such a quiet film, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix packs quite a punch. The surrounds are used intelligently and effectively, with the LFE rumbling more than I would have thought. The film's thunderstorms carry particular weight, and overall the mix has an unusual amount of presence, literally filling the viewing area. Dialogue, special effects and Badalamenti's wonderful score are all mixed together beautifully. While it is not a showoff mix, it is one that represents the film as it was intended to be heard. It also goes without saying that the audio source material is perfect, with there being no pops or background hiss to be noticed and the only drop off are ones that were intended by the filmmaker.

Unless you count the movie's theatrical trailer, there are no special features on Disney's DVD of The Straight Story.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I know that most DVDs have chapter stops. 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. Thank you for your understanding.

-- David Lynch

That is the first thing you will be greeted with as you open up your copy of The Straight Story, providing you chose to purchase it.

Personally I found it more than a little off-putting and it was almost enough for me to return the disc right off the bat. On a basic level I understand Mr. Lynch's statement but find that it reeks of arrogance. This is, after all, the same David Lynch who has, reportedly, shown total disdain for how his films are presented in any home video format, now jumping into the fray and telling people how his movies should be viewed? What does he think, that we are total morons who don't know how to watch a film? This is a movie that is not exactly going to appeal to the person who likes to watch their action sequences in slow motion, but rather the charms of the film are geared towards to serious film lover. People who watch their movies in one sitting to begin with, people who don't need to be told the proper way to experience a film. I can tell you I only use chapter search if life interrupts my viewing (sorry, Mr. Lynch, but things do indeed happen), or I want to go back and find a particular part of the movie that I wish to see or hear again. I don't know of anyone who goes through the chapter search to get the footnote version of a movie. I can understand the artist's point of view that the work should speak for itself. There is very little in the way of special content that I think would have increased my appreciation for The Straight Story, but of course I was not given that option. To be fair, outside of an isolated music track I was also not that let down by the total absence of supplemental material but please don't tell me how to watch a movie! It is insulting, elitist and unnecessary.

As a film, I have no complaints about The Straight Story.

Closing Statement

The Straight Story is that very rare cinematic creature, the perfect film. No shot is over done, none of the acting is over-the-top and the writing is both honest and heartfelt. Disney has given the film a lovely transfer with a great sound mix. Usually I would go to town for the lack of special content but I was so moved by the film itself that I saw very little need for any other extras, although I did miss that isolated music track. Still it's always nice to have options, like maybe the option of having chapter breakdowns so I could go back and find a specific moment in the movie I wanted to watch again. Of course, maybe I'm just too dumb or lowly to know I am supposed to watch a film from start to finish. I'm going to stop here because I feel a rant coming on.

As a movie, I cannot recommend The Straight Story highly enough. It is simple, complex, honest, moving and funny. It is a film that should be shared with friends and loved ones. I think it is an instant American classic and one of the best films I have seen in recent memory. My advice is pay what Disney is asking for the disc, don't even look at the inside card and enjoy this movie. It really is that good.

The Verdict

As a filmmaker, David Lynch is acquitted of all charges, although this judge would like to string him up by his testicles for his remarks on the inside of the case. If Mr. Lynch really wants to get involved with the production of his movies on DVD, perhaps he is best served by taking the time and giving DVD consumers, not to mention fans of his films, the things we most crave. Hopefully he does not think himself to high and mighty to sit down and record a commentary track.

Disney is thanked for the fine reproduction of this beautiful film on DVD, but is asked to put their price structure a little more in line with what they are offering the consumer.

To close, a moment of silence for Richard Farnsworth.

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 97
Extras: 0
Acting: 99
Story: 99
Judgment: 100

Perp Profile

Studio: Disney
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailer


• IMDb

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