The Straight Story

(David Lynch, USA, 1999)


There is no greater cliché in pop culture than the drive to uncover the Dark Side of everything: suburbia, daily life, sexuality, religion, and especially all feel-good forms of mass entertainment.

There is a snobbish element in this, as if the only truly serious art is that which explores the hidden, the shocking and the perverse.

More than any other popular artist, David Lynch is associated with tales of the Dark Side. Dirty little secrets of all persuasions fill his work from Eraserhead (1978) to Lost Highway (1997). Repression, trauma, bodily horrors and morbid fantasies seem to be his daily bread.

There is nothing in Lynch's career that will prepare his Gothically-inclined fans for The Straight Story. On the surface, it has more in common with a twee Australian movie like Malcolm (1986) than Blue Velvet (1986). And, while the film digs deeply into its subject, it steadfastly remains a disarmingly optimistic and compassionate work.

It is based on the real-life story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man who in his seventies made a trip across the American Midwest to visit his ailing brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), from whom he had been estranged for a decade. That sounds like the recipe for a road movie, except with one major twist: Alvin, due to his physical limitations, rides a lawn mower.

It is a deliberately gradual, minimal film, with an awesome control of mood and rhythm. The temptation to beef up the script with a raft of eccentric characters and outlandish incidents, and to prime the narrative with spurious elements of suspense, must have been strong. But despite plenty of droll humour and colourful detail, Lynch keeps The Straight Story sailing as smoothly and determinedly as his remarkable hero.

Whenever typical Lynch imagery occurs – the aerial views of sleepy, industrial towns familiar from Twin Peaks, or surreal glimpses of banal, daily activities suddenly made to look very odd – one starts anticipating the usual dark revelations. Alvin does have a troubled past, related to his wartime experiences and the break with Lyle. But for once Lynch offers, without irony, an uplifting view of people actually managing to negotiate such problems.

Whereas Lynch's cinema has usually been focused on phantasmagorias of the interior – dank rooms, disturbed bodies and troubled minds – here he at last opens himself to the exterior world. As in Terrence Malick's films, nature is another character in The Straight Story, with Alvin fitting snugly into the landscape.

The special beauty and power of this movie comes from its insistence on Alvin's quiet, stoic nature – qualities artfully conveyed in Farnsworth's great performance. Alvin is less repressed than restrained, rarely given to confession or open displays of emotion.

The film charts Alvin's slow journey towards the subtle revealing of himself to those closest to him. Viewers who cultivate a political objection to movies that preach 'family values' may be disconcerted, but few will be able to resist the profoundly moving conclusion of this tale. As a character quotes in Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1996), "there is no love, only proofs of love". The Straight Story both is, and is about, a proof of love.

MORE Lynch: Mulholland Drive, Lumière and Company, Inland Empire

See also: Outside / Twin Peaks (2015)

© Adrian Martin May 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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