Film Review: The Straight Story

An aerial shot, taken from The Straight Story.

The Straight Story, 1999

Directed by David Lynch, Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

The opening credits offer what might be the most pure lullaby to a Lynch fan the world has ever encountered; Badalamenti’s score plays like the white lodge version of Laura Palmer’s theme. After credits in an all-too familiar font, we see a small town bathed in sunlight; as much as we are reminded of the compromise of Twin Peaks, we find a purity in The Straight Story. Where Twin Peaks is a world in which pretension has obscured happiness, The Straight Story exists in a world wholly apart; it boldly claims that there is, in fact, good in this world.

The Straight Story looks to tell a story of redemption, in which a man drives his tractor from Iowa to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. It remembers the darkness, but looks to the light. In a scene in which its lead, Alvin Straight, meets another man of his generation, Lynch unleashes his master technique, the “I’m telling you something I don’t want to tell anyone because I trust you will hear me” scene. Farnsworth is one of the actors who partakes in it most authentically; his companion is equally brilliant in the scene.

This film has the greatest moments of earnest affection and sadness thus far through his career. The bizarre behaviors of the people Straight meets feel simultaneously the most authentic and the least affectionate, barring the zombies of Dear Meadow, because he does not give them all the kind of time they find in his previous works, but he also does not force them into the extreme heights of dementia or fantasy.

As such, The Straight Story is a fairly simple road movie, and thus cannot offer the sort of intellectual treatise of his disturbia series. It still has many ideas which must be deciphered, and it remains rather pleasant while it gives you time to feel each.

Perhaps The Straight Story is best watched as a summer film. It has the warmth of a Wes Anderson film combined with the greenery of the Midwest, never a Western despite Alvin’s cowboy hat. The Badalamenti score works in fiddling and acoustic guitar to amazing effect, as does Lynch’s affecting camerawork. The aerial shots in this film make farm highways stunning. Perhaps it is partly that I know these highways; Alvin’s journey takes him just an hour and a half outside my apartment, just as far as Milwaukee. And though I’ve never taken them to Iowa, I’ve been down that way, too, a couple hours south or a couple hours east.

But I don’t know these people. Its bodies are outside my frame of reference. I can’t relate to much of any of this, only try to appreciate and respect it. And, well, I think that’s swell enough. When it ends, it does so with affection and simplicity. I would ask for little more.


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