The Straight Story

The Straight Story ★★★★

"Roads in David Lynch’s films are unusually portentous. In Lost Highway, the road is a visual signifier of the film’s mobius-strip structure and rhyming narratives of guilt, violence, and betrayal. In Mulholland Drive, it’s the site of an amnesia-inducing car accident and a portal into the Hollywood Hills home in which a woman’s dreams are alternately made and shattered. And in Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth takes to the road to deliver a terrifying monologue during which he threatens to send Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey “straight to hell!” For Lynch, a flat swath of asphalt is a means of eerily signaling that his characters are about to arrive at a place of reckoning.

On the surface, Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story is a decidedly, well, straighter story than most of his other works. Where Lynch’s protagonists often find themselves on looping, circuitous routes to unknown realms, the soft-spoken yet exceedingly stubborn Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) sets out on his beaten-down lawn tractor for a 240-mile redemptive pilgrimage from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). But don’t let the film’s G rating and Disney banner fool you, as beneath Alvin’s placid smiles and Midwestern politeness lurks a hidden dimension of grief and sorrow that’s as devastating as that of any of Lynch’s doomed protagonists.

If Lost Highway was, in short, about a man’s unwillingness to reckon with his past sins, resulting in a psychic split once they start to catch up to him, The Straight Story is its more gentle mirror image. Alvin is a man tortured by his mistakes, and perhaps sensing that his death is around the corner, he’s only now starting to confront his demons, searching for the grace to forgive the brother he hasn’t seen or spoken to in over a decade, as well as himself. In a way, Alvin seeks to exit, rather than enter, the oblivion where many Lynch characters find themselves. And yet, the darkness and terror of a twisted soul and the beauty and tenderness of love are entwined here in ways that are common to Lynch’s work."

Read the rest of my review of Imprint's new blu-ray over at Slant Magazine.