Of all the strange things to be found throughout the films of David Lynch, one of the most startling comes at the very beginning of his 1999 road movie The Straight Story, with the first title card reading: A Walt Disney Picture.
It isn’t that the films of Disney and the films of Lynch are inherently dissimilar. Indeed, they’re often mirror images of one another, albeit reflected through a glass darkly, fairy tales operating on dream logic, filled with light and dark, innocence and temptation, menace and whimsy, all filtered through an aesthetic that’s equal parts transcendent and cornpone. Still, no one would ever mistake any Disney film, even at their darkest and most surreal, for one of Lynch’s violent, voyeuristic, hallucinatory puzzle boxes. Nor, for that matter, could one imagine a more ill-fitted pairing of studio and filmmaker, given the producer-driven culture of the former and the unremitting personal vision of the latter.
And yet, somehow, we have The Straight Story, a G-rated family film that fits as perfectly within the Disney canon as it does Lynch’s oeuvre.
Based on the real-life events, The Straight Story tells the tale of 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, in a career-defining capstone performance), who, upon receiving news that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, travels from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to reconnect and make amends. Owning no car and no driver’s license, and unwilling to take a bus or plane, Alvin makes the 6 week, 300-mile journey astride a used John Deer lawn mower capable of going only 5 MPH, and further weighted down by a camper wagon hitched to its back. With both his vehicle and his body constantly on the verge of collapse, Alvin’s odyssey across the hilly Midwestern countryside is equal parts comic and perilous, but ultimately redemptive and transcendent.
Straight’s story could have easily been milked for cheap schmaltz and/or broad comedy, but in Lynch’s expert hands it makes for a lovingly detailed, deeply moving, and utterly empathetic masterpiece, one that serves as a testament to the eerie beauty and awe-inspiring grandeur of, to borrow the title from a short story collection by the late William Gass, the heart of the heart of the country.
Although Lynch’s stature and cultural cache continues riding high following his triumphant return to filmmaking in 2017 with the miraculous Twin Peaks: The Return, The Straight Story remains underrated within his body of work. Much of that owes, no doubt, to its status as an outlier: the story was brought to Lynch by his then-partner Mary Sweeney, who would go on to produce and co-write the film. In the book Lynch on Lynch, Sweeney admits that Lynch was “tickled” at the prospect of making something so unexpected. Even the title of the film is pulling triple duty, operating not only as a pun on the main character’s name and the arch of his journey, but also a shift in direction for its director.
When The Straight Story premiered at Cannes ’99, the reaction was one of bewilderment, as viewers went in expecting another of Lynch’s Möbius strip nightmares, only to be met with a quiet and clear-eyed tale about aging, family and personal recompense. Many touted it as a much needed course correction for Lynch, whose previous two efforts, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), were savaged as self-indulgent, nigh impenetrable misfires (although both have since undergone much-deserved critical reappraisal), while others were quick to charge the arthouse auteur with selling out in the wake of bad reviews and bad box office. Fittingly, time has proved both camps wrong, as Lynch would push further into abstraction and experimentation following The Straight Story by way of Mulholland Drive (2001), Inland Empire (2006), and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), in so doing, capturing, then losing, then recapturing his audience’s devotion.
Even in disregarding hindsight, the initial reception to The Straight Story comes off as shortsighted. Watching the film today, it’s entirely and obviously of a piece with Lynch’s other work, despite its lack of narrative fracturing, psychosexual violence or carnival-like grotesquerie. Those may be the aspects most closely associated with the ‘Lynchian’ aesthetic, but just as essential are the employment of deadpan humor, transcendental technique and a rural gothic aesthetic, all of which The Straight Story has in spades. Nor is it lacking for those more characteristically Lynchian flourishes: the opening of the film, in which the tranquility of its Anywhere USA setting is broken by the sudden collapse of a human body, is an almost beat-for-beat recreation of the opening of Blue Velvet, while Alvin’s lonesome, ghostly ambulation amongst the ruins of abandoned industrial infrastructure often plays like a daylight version of Eraserhead. Meanwhile, the film’s most macabre scene, in which Alvin encounters a harried woman who cursed with killing deer after deer on her daily commute to and from work, would feel just as at home in Wild at Heart or Twin Peaks as it does here.
Whether viewers and critics find The Straight Story adequately Lynchian is ultimately a moot point, given how haunting and heartrending it is on its own. It’s a tossup as to what the most moving scene in the film is—the lesson about family that Alvin relays to a pregnant teen runaway is as powerful as it is simple, while a confessionary dialog with a fellow World War 2 veteran is utterly devastating. But for my money, nothing tops the final moments of the film. I’ll give nothing away here, except to say that the near silent work done by Farnsworth and another actor (a Lynch regular whose mere presence is enough to elicit an outpouring of emotion) tells more of a story in two minutes than most movies do over the course of their entire runtime.
It wouldn’t be right to call The Straight Story an overlooked film—it received near unanimous critical praise upon release, earned Farnsworth his first and only Oscar nomination (he remains the oldest Best Actor nominee) and its influence is clearly felt in a number of subsequent films, including Alexander Payne’s Midwestern road movie Nebraska (2013) and the semi-autobiographical Harry Dean Stanton showcase Lucky (2017). But it does feel as though it hasn’t received its full due. The Straight Story deserves to be held up alongside the best family dramas of Capra and Spielberg as a perennial American classic, and it makes for a particularly powerful viewing experience in this moment of global uncertainty, not merely because of its uplifting mood, but because it is a clear-eyed picture of real-life perseverance.
There are many lessons we would all do well to take from Alvin Straight, but perhaps the most important is learning “to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fade away.”
“The Straight Story” is now streaming on Disney+.