David Lynch’s The Straight Story

by Laurent de Alberti

When Septuagenarian Alvin Straight finds out that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, he decides to embark on a journey to reunite with him, in spite of his own poor health. Unable to drive, he resorts to riding a lawn mower through the Midwest to cover the 300 miles that separate them.

It is a popular opinion among Lynch detractors that his films are all style and no substance, and under the cover of mystery, glamorous amnesiacs and strobe lights lay some pretty empty propositions. This is obviously unfair and actually completely inaccurate. The American director might not be dealing with emotions in the most obvious way but far from being shallow, all of his films remain explorations of human nature, even if, more often than not, it is usually its darker side.

Besides, very early on in his career, he was able to prove with his second film, Elephant Man, the he could handle a more straight forward story, and emotions in a more understated and elegant way than most.

The Straight Story, based on a true story, is, to date, what might pass for a more straight-forward David Lynch film, although, straight-forward is perhaps pushing it, we are still talking about a man crossing America on his lawn mower here, the kind of story that would be too unbelievable if it were not actually based on true events.

Here the Wild at Heart director is adapting a script that he hasn’t written (a rarity), and displaying none of his more prominent visual tricks we have become accustomed to. No backwards walking or talking dwarves, no stories of dual identities and no lady inhabiting a radiator. In fact, the film was actually released by Disney studios and earned a G certificate, a rating that amused the director no end.

Yet you could watch this without knowing who directed it and still instantly recognise his style. On top of being a film director, David Lynch is also a painter, and his cinematographic work has often been compared to Edward Hopper’s paintings, thanks to his depiction of deserted, neon-lit streets at night and empty Americana landscapes. His eye as a painter is very recognisable here, right from the opening scenes featuring the every day life of a small American town, to the dreamy vistas of Middle America, all of which resist the temptation of making it look like postcards.

There is a subtle depiction of middle America on display here, of the so-called red states that are often seen filled with gun-totting, religious extremist types and weirdos in less enlightened films, stereotypes that European liberals love to scare themselves with. Through Alvin Straight’s encounters, we are given a portrayal through some impressionists brushes of certain kind of unremarkable American people that we so seldom see in films, a vision that is never patronising and full of warmth and heart.

Witness the scene where Alvin comes across a pregnant teenage girl on the run from her family, and shares his dinner with her at dusk on the side of the road. In lesser hands, the scene would have ended up with the pair bonding and hugging, with much crying. But there is no such thing here: this is almost a case study on how to handle a powerful scene with restraint.

That is not to say that David Lynch has renounced all his quirks. There is a hilarious scene where Alvin comes across a hysterical female driver on the brink of a nervous breakdown, having crashed her car into and killed yet another deer that threw itself under her wheels. This is a comical nod to the much more sinister car crash scene featuring Sherilyn Fenn in his earlier film Wild at Heart.

But of course the film belongs to Richard Farnsworth, as Alvin Straight, the lonesome cowboy on a journey. In what was to be his best, and sadly, his last performance (as he tragiclly took his own life a few years after the film came out), he gives a wonderfully natural, Oscar-nominated performance that hints at so much with so little affectation. Behind his sad blue eyes, he carries all the burden of old age as well as the weight of a difficult life, the quiet resignation as well as determination, the disappointments, and especially the dramas, expressed in a devastating scene as he is reminiscing of his past as a war veteran.

Essential to the success of the film however is Sissy Spacek in a short role as Alvin’s daughter, a character who, as we find out later on, has suffered her fair share of dramas. Another actress might have made a disaster out of portraying this woman with a big heart who has learning disabilities, but here the Badlands actress delivers a heart-breaking performance that reminds us why she is still one of the best actresses of her generation.

As the icing on the cake we have the beautiful music of long time Lynch’s collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, who has created so many mysterious and haunting scores for him, but here delivers a very different, and wonderfully warm, evocative score.

And when Alvin finally comes to the end of his journey and is reunited with his brother, played by Lynch regular Harry Dean Stanton, we are treated to an incredibly powerful yet understated scene, a fitting conclusion to this less than ordinary tale.

One of the most quietly emotional films of the last decades, and another gem in a career that holds so many, The Straight Story is the work of a humanist who has chartered the map of the human heart and psyche with such subtlety.

In these days when we are still subjected to dramatic excrements such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose emotional blackmail is so blatant we should all start a class action against the whole production team for compensation, we can only hope that David Lynch comes out of his filmic retirement soon.

Laurent de Alberti writes about film.

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