The Big Picture
- David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story tackles similar themes and aesthetics as his other works, despite being a G-rated Disney movie.
- The movie is a heartfelt love letter to the blue-collar regions of America that are often overlooked but make up the heart and soul of the country.
- The Straight Story is a standout film for Lynch as it is more mature, introspective, and toned down in style, but still manages to tell a compelling story about family love and the need for peace in life.
On the surface, David Lynch’s underrated 1999 masterpiece The Straight Story couldn’t be further from the director’s typical style and subject matter. However, the road movie tackles many of the same themes and even has much aesthetic similarity to Lynch’s films like Blue Velvet, and especially his TV show Twin Peaks. This may be difficult to comprehend considering that it is a G-rated Disney movie that has a huge beating heart and deep empathy for its characters, but neither of those things is foreign to Lynch.
As with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, David Lynch has repeatedly shown an interest in the oft-ignored blue-collar regions of America that are in many ways the heart, soul, and backbone of the country. It says a lot about Lynch that his most horrific films, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, are about the soul-sucking black hole that is Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, all of which get increasingly nightmarish and surreal between 1997 and 2006. The Straight Story, which ironically came out between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive is perhaps his most straightforward love letter to parts of the US wherein he finds the most solace and the best that human beings have to offer.
What Is ‘The Straight Story’ About?
The Straight Story tells the real-life story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a goodhearted elderly World War II veteran who travels across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower to visit his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) who has recently suffered a stroke. While the plot is quirky, the film is really an existential exercise in finding and restoring peace in one’s life, and in accepting the things which you cannot change.
Alvin goes on what can only be described as a spiritual odyssey across the beautiful midwestern plains during which he stops to receive help from kind strangers and reminisce about his time as a soldier. He has cathartic conversations with other elderly veterans in which he confronts his guilt and his demons, including alcoholism. His transformation into a more content and peaceful person is exhibited via subtle character changes that are best experienced by simply watching the movie. The Straight Story does a tremendous job of capturing the negative space in one’s life where profound realizations are made. Alvin allows the quietness of the journey to reach him, opening himself up to all possibilities and insights. The film puts the viewer in a meditative state, utilizing David Lynch’s signature slow directing style to great effect.
‘The Straight Story’ Delivers Kooky Melodrama
While it seems odd on the surface that David Lynch directed a Disney movie, what becomes immediately apparent upon watching The Straight Story is that little if any of his signature style was abandoned to appease the House of Mouse. Behind and in front of the camera fans of his work will recognize a plethora of familiar names and faces, including editor Mary Sweeney, his longtime editor to whom much of the credit for his entire career is owed. The gorgeous score is composed by Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch’s longtime composer and musical collaborator (see the 2018 musical project Thought Gang). And of course, the reveal at the end of the film that Lyle Straight is played by Harry Dean Stanton almost feels like a fan service moment for an actor who has contributed so much of his own unique charisma to David Lynch’s career.
The movie is chockfull of dreamy, prolonged shots of Midwestern plains aided quite romantically by Badalamenti’s score, doing for the Midwest what Twin Peaks did for the Pacific Northwest. The film makes sure that the landscapes are as much a character as Alvin Straight himself. Every scene is filled with a deep warmth and tenderness, the kinds which always acted as trimming to his more esoteric and tonally complex films. When Lynch leans deeply into the emotions in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, it played off as both ironic and sincere, as if he is poking fun at and showing his love for the melodrama of American entertainment.
In The Straight Story, you get a much more sentimental but not schmaltzy version of the melodrama that we have come to love and expect from a David Lynch project. The film also makes sure to include the lovingly kooky character moments that his fans have come to expect. The side characters provide some of the best comic relief in the whole film, and yet they are played off extremely naturalistically. The characters in The Straight Story retain the same whimsy that the characters in Twin Peaks exhibit on a frequent basis but are not so whimsical as to take you out of the world and of the story. They truly feel like real people, not exaggerated caricatures of real people.
What Makes ‘The Straight Story’ a Standout David Lynch Movie?
The Straight Story is far more mature and introspective than the average Disney film, and a lot more toned down on style and experimentation than past Lynch films. However, the filmmakers and actors involved embrace minimalism to tell a complete and compelling story that reaches deep into the human heart to tell a wholesome story about familial love and reconnection. The Straight Story is easily David Lynch’s most heartfelt and human film, as well as a timeless piece of Americana. It romanticizes the Midwest in a way that shows a genuine love for the land and for the people without coming off as nationalistic or like a cheap advertisement for the states depicted. It isn’t the kind of Disney film that would appeal to children, as it deals with very real and complex ideas of aging, mortality, trauma, addiction, and the need to find peace in one’s life.
David Lynch’s The Straight Story is a movie by a true auteur that can be loved and appreciated equally by both fans of his other work and those unfamiliar with it or who just don’t like his usual surrealistic style. Instead of highlighting the darkness that resides behind our collective Norman Rockwell-esque vision of suburbia or of Hollywood, he decided to highlight the brightness that exists in places where one would least expect, and it truly paid off.