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Remembering David Lynch’s ‘The Straight Story’

Twenty years ago, this G-rated, Disney-released, plaintive, and naturalistic tale of an aging man’s tractor journey across the heartland arrived at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s still an outlier in Lynch’s wild-at-heart filmography, and also one of his best movies.  

Disney/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I guess you’d have to say that this is different from the things I’ve been doing lately,” said David Lynch during a press conference at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival for his film The Straight Story. This comment was, on one level, a wry bit of understatement.

Two years earlier, Lynch had unveiled the violent, paranoid thriller Lost Highway, a film whose name suggested a high-velocity trip into the unknown. By contrast, the title of his follow-up—a drama about Alvin Straight, an elderly Iowan who drove nearly 300 miles across state lines on a John Deere lawn tractor to visit his ailing brother in 1994—hinted at a more fixed trajectory.

The major talking point around The Straight Story at Cannes had to do with the cognitive dissonance of seeing the creator of provocations like Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (which had won the festival’s top prize and been booed mercilessly, respectively) presenting something under the distribution banner of Walt Disney. You might as well have Salvador Dalí draw a Hallmark card. In Lost Highway, a Hollywood dirtbag dies by flying forehead first into a glass coffee table and a porno screening gets soundtracked by Rammstein, but The Straight Story would be released with the same all-ages rating as Bambi. “A gentleman named Tony called me up and said ‘you’ve got a G-rating,’” Lynch recalled to the press corps with the practiced finesse of a stand-up comedian. “I said, ‘you gotta tell me again because it’s the last time in my life I’ll hear that.’”

Weirder even than the corporate branding was seeing a Lynch film being considered for its naturalistic qualities. Ever since Eraserhead’s array of writhing rotisserie chickens and melted-Marilyn-Monroe radiator ladies, any discussion of “realism” in Lynch’s work came with the prefix “sur” attached. In his one previous fact-based movie, The Elephant Man, the filmmaker had taken daring, grotesquely poetic liberties with his subject matter. In a wholly original creation like Blue Velvet, he’d cultivated weirdness like red roses blooming in a garden. That film’s most quotable line (“It’s a strange world, isn’t it?”) could easily have been taken as Lynch’s mission statement: Like no other American director of his generation—or maybe ever—he had always let his freak flag fly. Now that it was at half-mast, it was a bit hard to tell whether or not to salute.

1999 was a significant year in the modern history of Cannes, as a jury headed by the other deranged David—that’d be Cronenberg—bypassed the most predictable choice for the Palme D’Or, Pedro Almodóvar’s crowd-pleasing (and eventually Oscar-winning) All About My Mother, for an unheralded Belgian drama called Rosetta, directed by the Dardenne brothers. The jury also ignored every American movie in competition, including titles by Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Tim Robbins, and Lynch. In a 2014 interview with Indiewire, Cronenberg jokingly compared himself to Fidel Castro, claiming that history has absolved him and his jury for his choices, which is largely true. The Dardennes turned out to be the most influential European filmmakers of the early 21st century (and have shown in Cannes seven times since, including this year with Young Ahmed). And yet it’s hard for me to forgive my fellow Torontonian for sending The Straight Story home empty-handed. It’s not just that history has absolved Lynch for doing something different, but that 20 years later, his change of pace holds up not only as one of the greatest movies in a landmark year (even if my Ringer colleagues quite disrespectfully placed it behind Pokémon: The First Movie in a recent feature), but a profound and enduring work of art as bizarre, uncompromised, and emotionally overwhelming as anything in his canon.

It’s also very much a companion piece to Blue Velvet, which it quotes quite deliberately off the top, via a series of shots establishing the physical and cultural terrain of a small American town. In place of the fictional Lumberton (or Twin Peaks), we are in Laurens, Iowa, and more specifically, on a suburban front lawn. In Blue Velvet’s most celebrated image, we are plunged beneath the immaculate grass to reveal a mass of hissing, incestuous insects—a potent metaphor for the idea of a society’s dark side.

It’s too simple to say that The Straight Story is Blue Velvet without the submerged horror, but that gets at Lynch’s strategy. He does not banish bleakness entirely, but instead manifests it at the margins. The choreography of The Straight Story’s prologue is funny and unsettling at once (which is why Cronenberg blatantly cribbed it for A History of Violence). As we watch a woman lazily suntanning, there is the heavy, painful sound of a body hitting the floor; she doesn’t notice.

The subject of that unseen thump is Alvin Straight, whose absence in this opening moment is pointed. From then on, he occupies the center of every single scene. Introducing the character with slapstick sound effects speaks eloquently to the idea that men like Alvin—a 73-year-old man portrayed by the 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work—can easily be reduced to afterthoughts, both onscreen and off. The remainder of the film corrects and complicates these attitudes by observing its hero’s conjoined frailty and strength as he pulls himself up off the canvas.

As closely as the film hews to the facts of its hero’s journey—evincing the witty double meaning of “The Straight Story” all the way—there is, simultaneously, a sense of self-portraiture, of Lynch trying to honor a kindred spirit. For a filmmaker who values independence above all else, a character defined by stubborn obstinance makes perfect sense as an alter ego, albeit one that Lynch couldn’t have identified with so closely earlier in his career. No less than Eraserhead’s bitter, anxious comic-strip depiction of fatherhood refracted its maker’s own young adulthood, The Straight Story can be understood as the work of a maturing artist determined to follow his own path after a series of setbacks. As much as Farnsworth might resemble a heartland Don Quixote as he tools down the highway atop a lawn tractor, he’s also an emblem for the idea of getting somewhere in your own time and on your own terms.

In interviews, Lynch called The Straight Story his “most experimental movie,” referring mostly to its documentary qualities. Not only was it shot along Straight’s real route from Iowa to Wisconsin, but also in chronological order. There is some irony in the notion that for Lynch, making something that more closely resembles a conventional mainstream release equals an act of radicalism, but what’s more interesting is how much of his characteristic film language is retained in the bargain. When Alvin learns that his estranged brother Lyle has suffered a stroke, the news is accompanied by a burst of lightning. It’s a moment that verges on cliché until you remember that such white-hot flashes almost always denote traumatic, cathartic epiphanies in Lynch’s films. As his face is illuminated through the living room window, Alvin sees the light.

Tonally, The Straight Story is geared towards a sort of gentle, picaresque comedy, getting laughs out of the running sight gag of Alvin as an Easy Rider, as well as his encounters with various civilians and well-wishers along the way. At the same time, there’s something melancholy in his methodical, five-mile-per-hour progress, which reflects his declining health (he’s no longer fit to drive a car). Farnsworth, a brilliant character actor gifted with a lead role, inhabits the part with a self-effacing dignity that also contains a sense of urgency—that there is no more time to waste.

Death hovers over every moment of The Straight Story, and Lynch keeps finding ways to encode this encroaching sense of mortality into the material without turning overly morbid. In one unsettlingly funny scene, Alvin comes across the corpse of a road-killed deer and the distraught motorist who ran her down. The scene recalls the bit in Wild at Heart where Lula and Sailor stop to help an accident victim whose brain is hanging out of the back of her head. “Where do they come from?” the driver shrieks, gesturing at the flat farmlands on either side of the road. It’s a strange world, isn’t it?

A sense of moving toward destiny gives The Straight Story its dramatic motor and emotional horsepower. The episodes in John Roach and Mary Sweeney’s screenplay are beautifully designed to reveal the naturally reticent Alvin to the audience as well as to himself. When he shares a campfire with a teenaged runaway, he recalls his childhood bond with Lyle as well as the fact that he was one of seven siblings who survived in a hardscrabble family that lost nearly as many. The exchange between the girl, who is pregnant and contemplating an abortion, and the old codger espousing the importance of family is what motivated some critics to uncharitably read the film as conservative propaganda (“David Lynch, meet Bill Bennett” snarked the critic from LA Weekly), and yet there’s nothing about the scene that feels untrue to its time or place. Even the borderline-sentimental payoff, involving a symbolic bundle of twigs, has a matter-of-fact gravitas (it also links The Straight Story for all time to its fellow class-of-’99 standout, The Blair Witch Project).

Flagging a former Eagle Scout for his conservatism is not exactly news, and at a time when films and filmmakers are becoming increasingly parsed for their problematic aspects—a critical pathway that can productively open up individual works and the discourse around them or else close off avenues of approach and expression—The Straight Story’s focus on a wizened, white avatar of shoot-from-the-hip honesty could seem even more reactionary than it did in 1999. And yet there’s nothing particularly prescriptive about the movie or sanctimonious the film, or about Alvin, whose stubbornness is never confused with a state of grace.

Considering Lynch’s gifts for the absurd and the uncanny, the directness of certain moments in The Straight Story is completely disarming. Waylaid in a small town with engine trouble, Alvin befriends a fellow septuagenarian and goes with him to a bar, where, after explaining that he doesn’t drink (and that alcohol had something to do with his feud with Lyle), the two seniors commiserate over their wartime experiences. Here, beneath a subtly expressionistic soundscape, Lynch plangently conveys the psychic pain and guilt carried around by men of Alvin’s generation—and the absolute strangeness of how they were required to go back to their regular lives on the home front. The scene gets inside the psychology of masculine repression with an almost unbearable sensitivity. The intimacy of Alvin’s conversation is consolidated by the subtle, almost Edward Hopper–ish image of the bartender standing respectfully and solemnly at the other end of the bar—as if he understands that he is excluded from his patrons’ shared past.

Because The Straight Story is mostly structured as a series of duets between Alvin and the other characters—including Sissy Spacek as his adult daughter, whose presence also references Lynch’s past as she and her husband, the Oscar-nominated production designer Jack Fisk, were integral to the production of Eraserhead—it works subliminally to stoke a sense of anticipation for how Alvin’s reconciliation with Lyle will play out. Time and again, we’re told about the intensity of their relationship, but also that it now exists only in the past tense. In its way, The Straight Story is as pressurized as a thriller, operating as much on the principles of suspense and dread as any of Lynch’s more overt forays into genre. In a film like Blue Velvet or Lost Highway, we don’t know what’s going to happen next, which is terrifying and exhilarating; here, we know what’s coming, but we’re so drawn into Alvin’s point of view—his pride at hitting the road; his anxiety at falling short of his goal; his fear that Lyle won’t answer the door when he arrives—that the ambling pace becomes its own form of horror. Even as time moves at a crawl, it’s being swallowed up behind us; memories aren’t the same thing as being able to hit reverse.

It’s hard for me to even write about the final scene of The Straight Story, not because it’s painful, but because of how exquisitely it aches. It is, basically, the cinematic equivalent of this GIF. In another, subsequent, wonderful modern American road movie, a character remarks that “sorrow is just worn-out joy”; The Straight Story inverts that equation. Crowd-pleasing is easy, but doing so in a way that doesn’t cheapen or simplify the emotions in play is really, really hard. For anyone who has seen The Straight Story, the simplicity of what transpires outside Lyle’s shack—the absolute judiciousness of the dialogue and the editing; the beyond-satisfying casting of the other actor; the sense of things locking precisely into place—is a thing to be treasured. For those who haven’t, I won’t give it away.

No filmmaker is as good at irresolution as David Lynch. His endings tend to be either the cryptically cyclical (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway) or purely devastating (Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks: The Return). When he does happily ever after, as in Wild at Heart, it’s in italics—a cloying, self-consciously goofy nod to The Wizard of Oz, Lynch’s favorite film and most overt influence. In The Straight Story, he nods stylistically to the climax of the The Elephant Man, which concludes with John Hurt’s John Merrick taking his own life by simply lying down to sleep like the little boy in a beloved drawing—a morbid but deeply moving variation on Oz’s insistence that there’s no place like home—before closing on a shot of a starry sky.

Death also hangs over Alvin’s trip, and the way it heightens his yearning for his own childhood. But at the end of his journey, he’s alive, and he’s not alone. When the camera pans up into the sky, just like it does at the end of The Elephant Man, it conveys a long-awaited moment of shared stargazing, and it elevates the modest, palpably earthbound movie that precedes it into something cosmic. In Heaven, everything is fine.