The Cosmic Kindness of ‘The Straight Story’

At first, the 1999 film The Straight Story seems like a strange outlier in director David Lynch’s strange oeuvre. Not only is it a G-rated Disney movie, but it’s also the only film he made from a screenplay he did not at least co-write. It is a deeply wholesome film, without even a hint of the malicious dread that marks his other work. Crane shots of a small town square capture dogs playing together in the street, with no one-armed men interrupting to rant about missing magic rings. A shot of a sprinkler cuts only to a lonely mother watching a boy play with a ball, and never pans down to grubs writhing in the loam. No doppelgängers appear, no faces contort. Even the low hum of a grain elevator brings comfort instead of fear.

But when the opening shot of a starry sky dissolves to a montage of cornfields and small-town vistas, all set to an aching Angelo Badalamenti score, the title card feels extraneous. We know we’re watching a film by David Lynch. These scenes capture the deep emotion that drew Lynch to the screenplay that his longtime editor Mary Sweeney wrote with John Roach. The same type of emotion he puts in all of his work, whether it be the destructive freedom of Wild at Heart or the terror of Inland Empire.

The Straight Story grounds this emotion in the absurd kindness of its characters. Septuagenarian Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) meets a variety of people on his 240-mile riding lawn mower trip to visit his ailing brother. Some characters reoccur, most notably Straight’s daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), but most have only short interactions with Alvin.

Despite their brevity, each of these moments bristles with feeling. Take Alvin’s encounter the most traditionally Lynchian character, a woman (Barbara Robertson) who hits a deer on the highway. We see the accident through Alvin’s perspective, with stuttering smash zoom on his worried expression as the car and deer collide. When he offers help, the woman launches into a maniacal rant about her attempts to avoid the deer, everything from praying to the saints to playing “Public Enemy real loud,” none of which have kept her from hitting “thirteen deer in the past seven weeks.” It’s a moment charged even in its silence, as the woman studies the horizon to wonder where they come from and takes a moment to grieve her latest victim, before screeching away in her car to a Badalamenti guitar sting.

After offering help, Alvin says nothing throughout the scene. What could he say? The only help he can give, the only help the woman needs, is an ear to listen. And so he stops and acknowledges her frustration and anger and grief.

The movie’s most important interaction plays out in a similar manner. Although he’s the goal of the entire film, Alvin’s brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) only appears in the final scene, a short two and a half minutes before the closing credits. When Alvin arrives outside of Lyle’s house, he does not knock on the door or even set foot on the porch. He stands on the lawn, calls his brother’s name, and waits.

The waiting matters. We watch the wrinkles in Farnsworth’s brow grow deeper. We see his sharp blue eyes dim with despair. We notice his lower lip tremble as he considers calling for his brother again. And, like Alvin, we gasp with relief when Lyle finally answers.

The two men speak only a few words, but those words contain multitudes. Noticing the lawnmower, Lyle asks, “Did you drive that thing all this way to see me?” Alvin answers plainly, “I did, Lyle.” On the page, these two sentences almost read like a joke, acknowledging the utter absurdity of an old man driving a lawnmower across state lines.

But the absurdity isn’t a joke, it’s an act of kindness. Lynch holds the camera on Stanton as that fact washes over Lyle. His initial nod of understanding gives way to a shudder of overwhelming emotion. A sadness fills his eyes that cannot be controlled, even when he shuts them tight. Lyle finally looks over at his brother, who looks back, and then he looks up at the sky. Alvin watches his brother as peace washes over him for the first time in the film, and he looks up as well. The shot dissolves back to the starry sky that opened the film.

The moment lacks the visceral punch of Lynch’s most famous works, like the singer collapsing at the end of the “Club Silencio” scene in Mulholland Drive or the citizens of Twin Peaks grieving as a brutal murder happens again. But the emotion is still there, made sweeter by the compassion it communicates.

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