And now it’s time to write about a notable movie released by Disney, a movie directed by a man who had a shot at greatness in the Star Wars franchise.
I’m talking, of course, about The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch. Until now it has been the only movie of his that I haven’t seen (I don’t think I’ve seen all of The Elephant Man, but I’ve at least seen it. It is very much not the movie you’d expect a man to direct in between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, but is not, contrary to popular opinion, a completely uncharacteristic movie for Lynch; just a gentler, more idyllic movie than is typical for him.
The Straight Story is about septuagenarian Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who finds out that his estranged brother Lyle (Henry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke. Alvin wants to make amends for past wrongs while there’s still time, but the brothers live in Iowa and Wisconsin respectively, and Alvin’s eyesight is too poor to drive a car (not to mention he can barely walk). Being something of a stubborn American individualist, Alvin decides to ride his lawn tractor across the country, much to the worry of his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek).
This is a movie which is more interested in incidental details than anything resembling dramatic structure, largely forgoing the usual road trip story beats in favor of rambling on almost purposelessly. Moreso than anything else in Lynch’s career, it anticipates the acetic, slow-burn pacing of Twin Peaks: The Return in its extreme emphasis on the journey over the destination.
I mentioned in my first Twin Peaks post that, in the show, the uncanny and the mundane are the same, and I think that speaks to how The Straight Story functions – not that there is anything supernatural or surreal about the movie, but rather in how the seemingly mundane and banal come to be imbued with their own sort of poetry. It’s a movie where you come to appreciate the individual moments and characters in their own peculiarity rather than in their contribution to to the overarching narrative. Although we’re afforded glimpses into Alvin’s past, he doesn’t have much of a character arc, and the movie isn’t much of a character study. For lack of a better comparison, it’s the My Neighbor Totoro of the Lynch canon.
It’s very unabashedly sentimental (the caricatures of small town America in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were, after all, coming from a place of affection rather than contempt), and very earnest in its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. The thing could have been a treacly, saccharine affair in lesser hands, but its austere approach of deferred gratification and emphasis on the here and now results in a unique emotional poignancy.
The Straight Story doesn’t care whether you think Alvin is heroic or foolhardy for refusing to hitch a ride; it just wants you to share the journey with him.