Beauty in the Ordinary: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999)

A stylized shot of the protagonist watching a lightning storm in David Lynch "The Straight Story".

Have you ever watched a film that made you wonder where it has been all these years? Alright, perhaps I do recall when this came and went in the theatres—I think the poster looks familiar, but admittedly, this isn’t the sort of film I would have gone to see at the time of its release. Furthermore, this has to be the most un-David Lynch film of David Lynch films, and yet the narrative is so simple and the character development is so good that I am left scratching my head. Sure, David Lynch is a director with talent enough to at least acquire obsessive fans—and I have seen several of his films, including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and others. It’s not so much that any of his films are bad per se, just dull.

Granted, Lynch’s narratives tend to veer on ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happening just so someone can say how much ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happens, all the while neglecting to mention the lack in character development and arid dialogue. Honestly, I can’t say I have ever connected with any of Lynch’s characters, and I remain adamant when I say that having weird shit happen for the sake of weird shit happening offers an easy way to distract from shallow character development much in the same way that forced politics in bad art attempts to distract from clichés. But I digress.

This brings me to The Straight Story, which centers on a retired farmer and widower in his 70s named Alvin Straight (played by Richard Farnsworth from Anne of Green Gables), who lives in his small Iowa home with his intellectually disabled daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek). The two share a loving relationship, as Alvin acknowledges Rose’s strengths—recognizing that she keeps things organized and has insights that others might overlook. Then, one day there is a phone call regarding Alvin’s distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) who lives in Wisconsin and has suffered a stroke. The two have not spoken in 10 years, and in his attempt to ‘make things right’, Alvin is determined to visit his brother. There is just one small problem—Alvin, who lives in Iowa, does not have a car nor driver’s license. What he does have, however, is a lawnmower. ‘Anger, vanity, you mix that together with liquor, you’ve got two brothers that haven’t spoken in ten years. Ah, whatever it was that made me and Lyle so mad… don’t matter anymore. I want to make peace, I want to sit with him, look up at the stars… like we used to do, so long ago,’ Alvin says.

Alright, so you can see where this odyssey is going—to Wisconsin…on a lawn mower. And if you think this sounds absurd, this film is based on a true story. Along the way, Alvin meets numerous locals who are bemused by his choice of transportation. Averaging about five miles per day, we can assume it takes Alvin about two months to arrive at his destination. ‘Aren’t you scared being all alone in those Iowa cornfields?’ One woman asks. ‘Well, ma’am, I fought in the trenches in WW2, so what is there to fear about an Iowa cornfield?’

The Straight Story is a wonderful film, full of great, realistic dialogue that captures the ‘simple life’ of the Mid-West without a hint of patronizing effect or disdain. This film is so well executed that it is something that young writers should study when attempting to craft dialogue. As example:

“I’d give each one of ’em a stick and, one for each one of ’em, then I’d say, ‘You break that.’ Course they could real easy. Then I’d say, ‘Tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that.’ Course they couldn’t. Then I’d say, “That bundle…that’s family.”

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

“There’s no one knows your life better than a brother that’s near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but, I’m trying to put that behind me…and this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I’m not too late…a brother’s a brother.”

Evoking the emotional resonance of A River Run’s Through It with the tenderheartedness of a Bruce Ario sprinkled within, this film is a story of self-discovery at the end of life. Almost every character interaction results in some sort of emotional insight that Alvin delivers—from a young runaway who comes to learn the value of family, a fellow WW2 vet sharing his stories, a priest offering Alvin dinner, among others. However, never do these moments feel forced or excessively sentimental. Alvin is merely an old man on a mission entering their lives via this alternative mode of transport and has enabled each, without intention or force, to reflect on his or her life.

In his review, Roger Ebert notes, ‘Along the way we will learn a lot about Alvin, including a painful secret he has kept ever since the war. He is not a sophisticated man, but when he speaks, the words come out like the bricks of a wall built to last. Like Hemingway’s dialogue, the screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney finds poetry and truth in the exact choice of the right everyday words. Richard Farnsworth, who was 79 when he made the film, speaks the lines with perfect repose and conviction.’

Ultimately, this isn’t a film merely about the journey but also the destination—because Alvin must arrive. Once he does, Lyle’s house welcomingly rests there quietly as though it has always been waiting for him. Alvin calls out to his brother, who answers, then laboriously steps outside. We are presented with a sad-looking Harry Dean Stanton (who I have heard someone say that he always looks sad in every movie) struggling with a walker. Alvin, who balances himself with two canes, takes a seat on the front porch. ‘You rode that here just to see me?’ Lyle asks. Alvin replies that he did. The two brothers do not exchange anything more than that, but we can see by the tears in their eyes how much each means to the other. Both looking up towards the sky, perhaps this might be the best moment of the film—and the most realistic. These are not ‘sophisticated’ individuals capable of rhapsodizing with eloquence, but we nevertheless see that they do feel as deeply as everyone else, and this is shown without any hint of condescension.

I watched The Straight Story twice, much enjoying it the first time, but then even more so the second. I caught more upon rewatch—subtle nuances that at first I did not see. In a sense, this is the perfect ‘road movie’ for one’s reflection and rumination, and what exists within these brothers’ lives resides in the past—their history together. And for both, little remains of their futures. Old and wounded, they have come to realize that time does not just merely move on but moves together.

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