by Andy Kamenetzky and Daniel Smith-Rowsey
In The Straight Story, septuagenarian Alvin Straight drives a lawn mower 240 miles through the heartland to reconcile with his estranged brother, a film of a true story that had occurred in 1994. Like the 2016 movie Loving, The Straight Story turns an improbably thematic surname into its own pitch-perfect plot summary.
On its surface, The Straight Story appears the polar opposite of what you’d come to expect from the David Lynch of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., and “Twin Peaks” fame. It’s his only film in which he received no credit for the screenplay – it was written by John E. Roach and Lynch’s frequent collaborator Mary Sweeney, who also produced and edited The Straight Story and many other Lynch works. Lynch shot the scenes in chronological order, and on-location to recreate Alvin Straight’s actual route. “When you’ve done two or three films that first got an X and finally got an R and then you do a G-rated film, it’s kind of considered to be a different kind of thing for a person,” he acknowledged to the L.A. Times with an understatement that sounded, appropriately, Midwestern.
When you consider the earnest normalcy against decades of weirdness and depravity, in its own right, The Straight Story may be the strangest movie of Lynch’s career. Save perhaps John Waters, he’s the last famous director anybody would envision making a G-rated movie. But Lynch’s films often deviate and experiment, suggesting that a G-rated road trip film could be another evolution in creativity. Moreover, The Straight Story actually features the foundation of a classic David Lynch film: small town isolation moving into an external journey that doubles as a subconscious odyssey.
Although not a Lynch script, you can feel his influence, between the surreal characters, strange bits of dialogue and off-kilter comedic beats, as well as an odd atmosphere permeating throughout. There are specific shared elements from previous films, such as characters with painful secrets bubbling to the surface, tragedy created by a blazing fire, and an ugly car accident leaving carnage in its wake. (Plus, a role tailor made for Harry Dean Stanton.) Even without sex, murder or oxygen masks, you could see why Lynch was drawn to the material.
This is the rare slow-paced movie that doesn’t actually feel slow, due to an underlying urgency from its patient rhythm. Alvin is on a race against the clock, between Lyle’s condition, plus his own aging process. At 73, with his health issues, you by definition have no time to waste. Plus, Farnsworth’s real life cancer while filming the movie adds a layer of genuine pathos that’s perhaps impossible to fake or replicate. It’s similar to when John Wayne played a legendary gunfighter and outlaw dying of cancer in The Shootist. (Contrary to popular legend, Wayne wasn’t actually terminally ill during production, but he’d already experienced a cancer bout, and was in bad health while making the movie.) It’s easy to believe that art imitated life to some degree in shaping perhaps the best performance of The Duke’s career.
“This is David Lynch’s view of the wisdom of life when you are 73 years old. It’s an ode to America, to human values,” said Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Studios, who made the film. Schneider sees Lynch’s film as “a journey of redemption . . . that celebrates the aging of America.” Sissy Spacek put it this way: “It’s a 4-mile-an-hour road picture. It’s about living your life and not having regret. It slips up on you and hits you from behind.” Roger Ebert also compared it to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” which doesn’t seem quite so out of Lynch’s wheelhouse.
Could The Straight Story have been made the same way in 1989 or 2009? It’s not beyond the pale, but not likely either, particularly financed by a studio. For one thing, Lynch probably needed to present a little more weird dysfunction before responding to his many successors by flipping up the game in 1999. For another, it’s not that America didn’t appreciate its World War II veterans before 1998, but that year’s double-barreled cultural shotgun of Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation” and Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan kicked that appreciation into something like mass veneration.
You couldn’t ask for more perfect timing for a low key movie about Alvin Straight, a man who refuses help, refuses to be deterred on his modest journey, and refuses to be afraid to sleep in strangers’ fields at night, insisting it’s hardly harder than what he did during WWII. He’s a sort of unplugged/DIY version of the exalted Brokaw/Spielberg version. For a third thing, 1999 is just before America got separated into red states and blue states, with all the attendant cultural estrangement. There’s something happily and sincerely folk-wisdom-loving about The Straight Story, something that feels harder to envision after a 21st century chock-full of reality shows like “Duck Dynasty,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.” When people stick up for “Trump Country” as more than deplorables, they’re speaking of the kind, helpful grounded folks who without fail help Alvin along his journey.
Whether the truth is closer to deplorability or The Straight Story is beside the point. The movie is extremely sympathetic towards small town life, never mining its humor at the expense of the residents, who aren’t treated as unsophisticated or sheltered. That’s a rarity for Hollywood in general, and at a time of American cultural division, unlikely to be replicated.