David Lynch Gives It to Us Straight

By Daniel Clemens

Looking back now, rural Pennsylvania was not the most exciting place to grow up. In fact, I could think of about a dozen other places I would rather spend eighteen years of my life than where I did. The novelty of tractors driving alongside cars on the backroads of town wore off quickly, as did the lines upon lines of cows and sheep and abandoned farmhouses I passed every day on my way to school. Although occasionally appreciated, I soon grew weary of knowing every mundane detail of the lives of every member of the town’s small citizenship. Even worse was having them know every detail of mine. However, I didn’t know any other kind of life back then; I had nothing else to compare it to. Looking past the seemingly endless monotony of my living, there was an abundance of magic to it all: a simple and wonderful innocence that can’t be found anywhere other than in a small town—at least, I have yet to find it any place else. Fortunately, David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY captures that exact form of rural magic in spades. 

THE STRAIGHT STORY, David Lynch’s eighth feature-length film, is arguably his most experimental (he often even says so himself). Previous entries into the director’s vast filmography often involved the bizarre worlds of young, middle-class men and women who are either running away from something or chasing it themselves. THE STRAIGHT STORY exists in its own unique world – a parallel universe where conversation is not so cryptic, and where the strangest thing one might see is an elderly man riding his lawnmower down the road. Rather than force surreal situations onto his characters, Lynch allows them to find their own adventure, resulting in a much more personal kind of journey.

The film chronicles the journey a 73-year-old Alvin Straight made from Iowa to Wisconsin on his lawn mower to mend his relationship with his estranged and ailing brother. Richard Farnsworth is so gentle and kind in his performance that the tragedy he would experience in his own life after filming is deeply sad. Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight is clearly a man who has lived a life – and still has a few more things to do before he’s finished with it. Despite his tenderness, there’s a respectability the actor commands in every scene. His performance flows with such an ease that it could only be the meticulously crafted work of a veteran actor. Right by his side is Sissy Spacek as his loyal daughter, who is living in a quiet sadness after suffering a traumatic experience.

The cinematography by Freddie Francis (who previously worked with Lynch on THE ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE) is filled with a familiar array of warmly rustic tones. The landscapes of the plain Iowa farmlands capture a slice of Middle America not usually depicted on screen. Mary Sweeney (who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay) edits in a way that blends each scene onto the next, resulting in a viewing experience similar to looking at a gallery of Durand or Wyeth. Lynch’s longtime musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti overtures all of this with a beautiful, swelling score that, while occasionally feels out of place, nonetheless adds some grandeur to the otherwise simple narrative.

Aside from the uncomplicated story, this film is distinct among Lynch’s work for a variety of reasons. First, it is the only film (and remains the only film) that Lynch did not write himself. Sweeney crafted the screenplay with John E. Roach, and both managed to find exactly the right thing to say in the smallest amount of words. There was no necessity to create an ultra-strange world where mysterious things happen at random – that world already exists, brimming with fantastic and profound stories waiting patiently to be told.

The film was shot independently (not a first for Lynch) and in chronological order. The crew filmed along the actual route that the real-life Alvin Straight journeyed through from Iowa to Wisconsin in 1994. When thinking of David Lynch and production companies, Walt Disney Pictures would probably come last in a game of word association, and yet THE STRAIGHT STORY was sold to and released by that exact company in 1999. If that elusive piece of trivia has yet to sink in, consider former President of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group’s statement about the film: “[The Straight Story is] a beautiful movie about values, forgiveness and healing, and celebrates America. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a Walt Disney film. Lynch’s slice of Americana satisfies enough aspects of a “family-film” while still retaining his own stylistic sensibilities, and with that in mind, it makes much more sense why the Disney company might have purchased the rights. Farnsworth would go on to become the oldest nominee in the category of Best Leading Actor in a Motion Picture at the Academy Awards, and the film would compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Stripped of his typical stylistic choices, THE STRAIGHT STORY proves to be a simple, linear, and straight-ly told narrative detailing the compelling nostalgia of a forgotten place in America. It is in this beautiful simplicity that Lynch is able to tell his most poignant story yet.

Daniel Clemens is a sophomore Visual and Media Arts Production major at Emerson College. When not immersed in his lifelong passion for film, he can be found inhaling eleven shots of espresso or petting dogs in the Boston Common with his friends.
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