The Path Less Travelled: David Lynch's The Straight Story
David Lynch made his name on taking quaint, picturesque views of American life and turning them on their heads with projects like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but The Straight Story is, for lack of a better word, a straightforward tale with not a hint of cynicism. To see the director wholeheartedly commit to making such a story feels more like an experiment in itself, to show audiences that he’s capable of making something that’s the exact opposite of the ‘Lynchian’ mode that he’s most famous for.
Lynch tells a partially fictionalized account of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who in 1994 travelled 240 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin on a John Deere tractor, in order to make amends with his long disconnected brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). The choice of a tractor is certainly odd, but given Alvin has had his drivers license revoked and requires the use of two canes to stand, let alone walk, its his only means of transportation.
In taking on a project derived from true events, as opposed to his stories arising from subconscious desires and imagery, Lynch attempts to portray his earnest sensibility with The Straight Story. If one were to watch this having only knowledge of the director from his filmography prior to this point, they might almost think it’s a practical joke. But Lynch is not messing around here, and despite its sense of artistic deviation, the film demonstrates that the director is more than the nightmarish noirs which defined his most illustrious period.
Perhaps The Straight Story is Lynch’s effort at soul-searching, after a strange number of years that would see him create a cult classic TV series with Twin Peaks (before having it taken away from him), winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart and then returning years later with Fire Walk with Me to outright boos, and making the wildly disparate odyssey that is Lost Highway. After years of mining the same dark material, a creative break had to take hold, and what better way to change things up than with a G-rated, Disney released feature about old souls reconnecting after many years?
Bookended by credit sequences representing a vast, outer space like quality, the film itself is rather antiquated. Beginning in cosmic territory sets the stage for a rather microcosmic story, told almost entirely from Alvin’s point of view. This is a story about a man attempting to redeem himself for the past. As he travels across the American Midwest, we get a clearer picture of Alvin and his history. It would be easy to think that Alvin’s ultimate objective would be to take a scenic expedition through his own memories, but these memories are not to be treasured, as we soon find out. A WWII veteran who drowned his sorrows in booze and failed to make a healthy family for himself, the struggle to reconnect with Lyle after all this time has more to do with Alvin’s own sense of disappointment than anything else. Farnsworth would sadly pass away the year after The Straight Story was released, but what a final performance it would be. You can really tell that he, along with Lynch, committed themselves wholeheartedly to portraying this man’s story and making sure that it resonated.
While forming a point of opposition on the surface, The Straight Story really is a integral component in Lynch’s career, and debatedly the film which helps to helpfully inform the sense of sweetness that permeates in his more familiar works. It’s not the creative 180 in style that it’s been labeled by many as, and reworks familiar touchstones of Lynch’s mise-en-scene in new ways which fans will surely pick up on. It must have been a great respite, as shortly afterwards, Lynch wrote, produced, and directed what many believe to be his magnum opus - Mulholland Drive.
The Straight Story is now streaming on Showtime on Demand.