Monday, 18 January 2016

Three Great Movies About... Old Folk Road Trips

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday night.

You know how it is. You're ambling along, ticking off the days, working, eating, sleeping, and before you know it, you're old. You've lived nearly a whole goddam life. Everything becomes just that little bit more urgent, and there's always that one place or person that you need to visit before it's too late. While there's breath left in you, there's time enough for one more road trip. These sort of movies are to me the equivalent of comfort food, and the following three stories tell of older folks who feel a desperate need to get somewhere, each hitting the road for a journey across America.

The Straight Story (1999)

“The worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young.”

I saw this for the first time this week. It may be my favourite film of all time. Really. A scruffy old man called Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) hears news that his brother, who he has not spoken to for years, is seriously ill. He decides to bury the hatchet and travel to visit him, hundreds of miles away, but without a driving license there is only one obvious solution: drive the whole way on a lawnmower. It's a David Lynch film, but you’d never know - it's entirely normal, beautiful, and doesn't feature dwarves talking backwards. I honestly cannot put into words how much this film affected me, as I've mentioned before I am not an emotional person, but I would challenge anyone not to be moved by it. It floored me. It's about as close to perfect as any film I've ever seen. The looping music by Angelo Badalamenti fits the pace and tone of the story down to a tee, the characters have depth and wonderful dialogue to work with, particularly in the scenes where old stories are recounted, and Lynch shows a level of restraint that has never been hinted at in any of his other work. It's a film that has you thinking about getting old, and what you'll be like at that time of life. If, when the time comes, I have the opportunity to decide what will be the last film I see in my life, there’s a very strong chance that I’ll choose The Straight Story. It's as good as that.

Nebraska (2013)

“So, you told the Sheriff you were walking to Nebraska?”
“That's right. To get my million dollars.”

This film must surely owe a large debt to The Straight Story, even if it’s not in the same class. Again it’s a scruffy white haired man (Bruce Dern) who gets it into his head that he must get out on the road, this time with the belief that he’s on his way to Nebraska to claim a jackpot prize. It’s a father-son road trip, and so offers ample opportunity for humourous exchanges between them as much as deep-and-meaningful ones. It was released in black and white, which does work in terms of making things visually bleaker, though I think this de-colourisation would have made more of an impact if the attempts at humour had been toned down or removed to fit such a look. Lighter touches can aid a film like this, but a few less silly moments might have taken it somewhere that would stay with me a lot longer. As it is, a very watchable and enjoyable film with moments of real quality, just not enough to make it one of the greats.

The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

“I guess when you've lived longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough.”

An elderly woman, stuck living with her son and nightmarish daughter-in-law, has one last wish to fulfil: return to her old home in Bountiful, Texas, one last time before she dies. When they won’t agree to her wishes, she decides to board a bus and make it happen for herself. Adapted by Horton Foote from his own acclaimed and long-running stage play, it is a seemingly simple story that reveals it’s depth as the old woman shares her life story with others she encounters on the journey. It is quite sentimental, some might find it too much so, but Geraldine Page (who won a best actress Oscar for her performance) portrays the woman with such warmth and humbleness that you can’t help but root for her to make it.

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