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The Straight Story 
September 20, 2021

DIRECTED BY

David Lynch

STARRING

Richard Farnsworth
Sissy Spacek
Harry Dean Stanton

 

RATED

PG

RELEASED IN

1999

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 52 Mins.

T

he title of The Straight Story (1999) works two-fold: as the name of the most “straight” movie the surreal- and scary-leaning David Lynch has ever made; as the name of a film that does indeed tell a story about a man named Straight. It’s a quiet but powerful drama that has such an unaffected sweetness, and so consistently finds profundity in the ordinary, that it’s almost surprising that it’s based on a true story. It has

a kind of rarified optimism and compassion that, if they were to confront you in real life, might spark suspicion. 

 

Seventy-nine-year-old Richard Farnsworth, warm and somber-eyed, stars in The Straight Story as Alvin Straight. He’s a 73-year-old World War II veteran who, at the beginning of the movie, hears that his decade-estranged younger brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), has suffered a stroke. Though Alvin wants nothing more than to visit his ailing sibling — the incident is another reminder that at his age, there’s no use letting old arguments triumph over love — everything is working against him. Alvin lives in rural Iowa, and has neither the eyesight needed to drive to Lyle’s Wisconsin home nor any close airport access.

There isn’t anyone in his life who could take him there by car, either. (Alvin’s developmentally disabled daughter Rose, played by Sissy Spacek, would love to, but she doesn’t have her license.) Alvin’s health problems are also nearing an impasse, per a doctor he visits early in the movie. His lungs are almost entirely crisped from a lifetime of smoking; his stroll is not sturdy enough to go without a pair of walking sticks. (The first time we see Alvin, who is also diabetic, in The Straight Story, he is spread across the floor after collapsing in his garage.)

 

But Alvin is so persistent about seeing his brother that he never considers not going to Wisconsin. Eventually, he lands on what he sees as his best transportation option: his beat-up red tractor. With a travel trailer hitched to it, Alvin sets off for this improbable journey to the dismay of mostly everyone in his tiny town. “He’ll never make it past the Grotto,” one onlooker grumbles. Inevitably, the engine on Alvin’s decades-old machine poops out actually pretty close to the Grotto, and he has to turn around. But after Alvin decides to invest in a used but good-conditioned John Deere, it’s basically smooth sailing, save for his favorite hat occasionally flying off thanks to speeding-by semis or hills unfriendly to heavy load-carrying lawnmowers.

 

Alvin meets a handful of people along the way that only enrich the story either emotionally or comically. There’s a pregnant 15-year-old runaway (Anastasia Webb) to whom he imparts some wisdom; there’s a frantic woman who crashes into a deer just up the road and uses Alvin as a sounding board for her frustrations when he meets the wreckage. (This woman claims to have hit 14 deer in the last week, and she worries the madness is never going to end, since she has to travel down this road to get to work; this confrontation might be the most stereotypically Lynchian thing The Straight Story has to offer.) Aside from the latter run-in, The Straight Story is a gentle odyssey, made even more fable-esque because of its splendid shots of Alvin’s tractor amiably ambling against the sunset and its happy absorptions of starry night skies following long, hot days. 

 

I’ll admit that I teetered on the verge of tears for almost all of The Straight Story. I think this is because Farnsworth’s unshowy performance is so unassumingly touching — peaking when he’s offering pearls of greyed advice and wistful remembrances of days past — and because the script, by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, so wonderfully spins a simple tale imbued with regret, sadness, hope, and unvarnished wisdom that never has to strain to stir something in us. 

 

In his more than 40-year career, Lynch has almost exclusively focused on the uncanny — created universes that almost entirely encompass the eeriest parts of life and what they can look like when reflected back through funhouse mirrors. With The Straight Story, Lynch keeps at bay his usual tendencies to essentially assault the viewer, to leave them a little bewildered and a little scared. For the first and so far last time in his career, Lynch emphasizes the goodness and not the unearthliness undergirding humble everyday lives. 

 

It also turns out, with The Straight Story, that the director is also a master of emotional restraint. A lesser filmmaker might stage the gracefully quiet ending in a way that accidentally makes it feel deflated, anticlimactic. But Lynch knows better than many filmmakers how to find the beauty in even the softest of emotional storms. We wish he’d set aside his commitment to the antic every once in a while to let them rain on us more often: The Straight Story is one of his best movies. A