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The Straight Story (1999) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

alvin mower brother lyle

Principal social theme: aging

Walt Disney Pictures. G rating. Featuring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, Jane Galloway Heit, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, John Farley, Kevin Farley, Anastasia Webb, James Cada, Matt Guidry, Russ Reed, Bill McCallum, Everett McGill, Jack Walsh. Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. Edited by Mary Sweeney. Music by Angelo Badalamenti. Produced by Mary Sweeney and Neal Edelstein. Directed by David Lynch. Color. 111 minutes.


The Straight Story is one of the few mainstream efforts by the brilliant, but unconventional director David Lynch. It is based on a true episode in the life of Alvin Straight, an elderly Iowa retiree who traveled three hundred miles on a riding lawn mower to reconcile with his brother, who had suffered a stroke. The film is filled with many small adventures and encounters that illustrate the challenges and dilemmas of aging. Veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, the former stunt double of Roy Rogers, dominates the film in an unforgettable performance. It took an extraordinary effort for Farnsworth to complete the film since he was ill with terminal cancer. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, the oldest actor to receive a nomination. Farnsworth took his own life a year after completing The Straight Story .


Alvin Straight, a cantankerous senior citizen living in Laurens, Iowa, with his daughter Rose, suffers a fall and cannot get up. He visits his doctor, who advises that he change his ways, quit smoking, and start using a walker. Alvin disregards the advice. He receives word that his brother Lyle, with whom he had not spoken in over ten years, has suffered a stroke. With his eyesight too poor to maintain his driver’s license, Alvin decides to take to the road and have one last adventure, planning to visit his brother and bury the hatchet. He plans to travel the three hundred mile distance to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, on his riding mower, hitching up a wagon in tow. At first Rose tries to dissuade him, but knowing that her father never changes his mind once it is made up, offers him her support. Setting off, Alvin only manages to travel twenty miles before the mower breaks down, and he has it hauled back to town. He visits Tom, the local tractor dealer, and asks him for a good used riding mower. Tom sells him his own personal rider, and Alvin sets off again.

Alvin’s journey is encapsulated in a series of montages and encounters with a great variety of people. A runaway teenager, for example, stops by Alvin’s fireside, and he shares his supper of wieners with her. They talk, and Alvin explains why the concept of family is important. He helps convince the girl to return home and ask her family for their help with her pregnancy. Alvin spends another night in a motorcycle camp, and the bikers chat with him about how it feels to be old. After five weeks, Alvin almost has a bad accident in Clermont, Iowa, when the mower overheats traveling downhill, breaking the drive belt. Dan Reardon and his wife, Darla, invite Alvin to bunk in their garage while his machine is being repaired. They even offer to drive him the last lap of his journey to Mount Zion. Alvin is appreciative of the offer, but he explains that this journey is something he has to finish on his own terms. He calls Rose to forward his Social Security check so he can pay for the mower repair. He negotiates the cost from $247.80 down to $180, and then heads off again. He feels a genuine moment of triumph when he reaches and crosses the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. When he sets up his camp outside a graveyard, the local priest brings him supper. He and Alvin discuss the purpose of his trip, to reconcile with his brother. The priest recalls seeing Lyle after his stroke at the local hospital. The next day, Alvin’s mower breaks down just outside Lyle’s farm, and a neighbor tows him the last mile. Using two canes, Alvin walks up to his brother’s porch. He calls out his name, and Lyle appears, coming out of his door using a walker. (Curiosly enough, Alvin refused to use a walker when his doctor suggested he should.) They stand and look at each other for a few moments, before his brother asks him to sit. Lyle stares at the mower, amazed that Alvin drove it the entire distance to visit him. They sit together for a while until the sun sets, casting their gaze up to the night sky full of stars. Before the end credits, a title card appears, saying “In Memory of Alvin Straight (1920–1996).”


The Straight Story has an unusual sense of verisimilitude since it was shot on the exact Iowa roads that the real Alvin Straight traveled in 1992, when he undertook his unusual quest. Some critics have dubbed Straight the “Don Quixote of America” because of his outlandish scheme. The movie is also an unusual variant of the road film, a popular American subgenre including such varied efforts as It Happened One Night (1934), Easy Rider (1969), and Thelma and Louise (1991). By its very nature, these films are episodic and present different slices of Americana through the people that Alvin encounters. Although some of the people he meets are indifferent or preoccupied (such as the commuter woman whose car just struck a deer), most individuals he comes across are good-natured and try to be helpful. Alvin manages to touch most of them with his quiet dignity and sense of determination in spite of his diminished capacity.

Along the way, we learn additional facts about Alvin and his life. Many of these observations have to do with aging. At one point, Alvin comments that the worst part about getting old is remembering when you were young. We also learn about a calamity in the life of his daughter, Rose, when the state, feeling she could not be a fit mother, took away her baby. When he is laid up for repairs in Clermont, Alvin befriends a local elder, and they share their tragic experiences during World War II. Alvin recounts how he accidentally killed an American scout who was sneaking back across the enemy lines. Alvin later expresses his overwhelming desire to set things right with his brother, Lyle. He states that only a brother can understand exactly who you are. As one approaches the end of life, such empathy is critical for peace of mind. Until he meets the priest in Wisconsin, he does not know if his brother had recovered from his stroke.

Few films have examined aging in such a simple, honest, and unsentimental fashion. The film’s observations about aging are bittersweet, tinged with regrets and sorrow as well as an undercurrent of dignified acceptance. The final scene, in which Alvin and Lyle sit side by side looking up at the stars, is truly sublime, one of cinema’s golden moments.

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