Playing it Straight
And now...a G-rated movie from David Lynch! No, Lynch hasn't lost his mind. He hasn't gone soft in the head. And he hasn't sold out to the smiley-faced bean counters at Disney. While the notion of America's King of Weird -- the man who brought us Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks -- making a heartwarming saga that fits into Disney's image may seem heretical (or at least unlikely), the truth is that The Straight Story is clearly a David Lynch movie. By traditional Lynch standards, this tale about Alvin Straight -- a 73-year-old man who spent six weeks driving more than 300 miles on a lawn mower in order to make peace with his ill, long-estranged brother -- may be a little short on pustules, sexual anxiety, and the surreal; but those are just the most obvious, visible trademarks of the director's work.
Sure, The Straight Story may feel more real than any of his earlier films. After all, it's based on a true story. On the other hand, so was The Elephant Man, and that had Lynch's unique worldview throughout. It's also the case that The Straight Story has virtually no sex, kinky or otherwise; no violence; no language stronger than an abortive "What the...!" But it does have qualities that link it to the director's other work: a sense of amusement at its characters that never tips over into caricature or disrespect; an undercurrent of deep anxiety; and, more than anything, a sense of nearly religious awe at the mysteries of existence.
The opening shots are a less sinister, less comic retread of the opening of Blue Velvet, which itself seemed a variation on the opening to Hitchcock's kindred Shadow of a Doubt. From an image of a night sky, we dissolve to an aerial shot of farm machinery (with no people in sight) operating in endless fields; then to a few shots of a small Midwestern town, streets full of frolicking dogs and lumber trucks; and finally to a high shot of Dorothy (Jane Galloway Heitz), a middle-aged woman sunning herself outside a small house. The woman exchanges a few words with Rose (Sissy Spacek), Alvin's daughter, who leaves.
At this point, the camera movement and the sound effects turn slightly disturbing. The wind rustles the trees ominously, and as Dorothy walks out of frame and out of earshot, we glide down toward a window and hear a horrible thump -- the sound (we can already guess) of Alvin crumpling to his kitchen floor. It's a thoroughly David Lynch sequence -- full of menace and mystery.
We later learn that Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) hasn't dropped dead or anything, but that his hips have deteriorated to the point where he's going to have to use a second cane to get around. But there are more unsettling scenes coming: a shot of Rose looking longingly out a window, an action that goes unexplained until much later; a clasp of a terrified Alvin as he overhears only one end of the crucial phone call informing him that his brother Lyle has had a stroke.
The two brothers, once extremely close, had a falling-out 10 years earlier about something that now seems so insignificant that Alvin claims not to remember what it was. But the idea of his brother's mortality, much more than his own, is a life-changing wake-up call: It's suddenly completely clear to Alvin how much more important familial love is than whatever squabbles he and Lyle may have had. He resolves to go visit Lyle, no matter what.
The problem is that Alvin, living on Social Security, can't afford a bus ticket, and his sight is too bad for him to have a driver's license. It's not clear how he can get from western Iowa to Wisconsin to reach Lyle. But Alvin is nothing if not determined. Despite his bad eyes, his disintegrating hips, his diabetes, and his just being a pretty worn-down old guy, he decides to hitch a small one-axle trailer to his riding lawnmower and drive it, at maybe five miles an hour, the 370 miles to Mount Zion, Wisconsin.
Alvin has a series of low-key adventures on the road -- encounters with runaways and priests and bicycle racers -- during which we slowly learn more about his life, why his daughter lives with him, why he's who he is. The filling in of these textural details climaxes in a scene in which Alvin and another old man (Wiley Harker) sit in a bar, trading traumatic stories about fighting in World War II. The sequence is extraordinary, less important for what the old guys say than for their faces as they say it. It's a bracing moment when we realize that these grizzled, slightly comical old geezers are in fact the very same people as the fresh-faced young heroes from Saving Private Ryan and a thousand other war movies.
From then on, the underlying anxiety increases. Farnsworth lets it surface only in occasional fleeting expressions, but, the closer he gets to Lyle, the more Alvin is riddled with worry. At first the main question seems to be, Is Lyle incapacitated? Brain-damaged? Even dead? But then we realize another, equally troubling, question: Will Alvin be welcome, or will Lyle deny him his chance to reconcile?
Some Lynch devotees may find these conflicts to be a weak brew, but to do so is to miss the important qualities in his work. One of the most difficult scenes for people to swallow in Blue Velvet was the moment when Laura Dern's Sandy stops her car in front of a church -- for no apparent reason other than to justify the organ music on the soundtrack -- and tells Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey her dream about thousands of robins bringing love to the world. On the one hand it was so baldly mawkish as to appear ironic; on the other hand, together with the music (and the context), it was strangely moving -- once you put your postmodern cynicism aside long enough to let it be.
It's that sort of moment that suggests the positive awe (that is, the wonder) in Lynch that balances his negative awe (the dread). It's always been there, but in The Straight Story, it's dominant for the first time -- perhaps in part because the director had to give proper respect to the real people whose story he's telling.
For whatever reason, The Straight Story is indeed heartwarming, though not simplemindedly so. It represents the other side of Lynch's particular, almost spiritual, worldview; in essence, The Straight Story could have been called Found Highway. Like Lyle and Alvin, it and Twin Peaks (and the others) are siblings beneath the skin, no matter how distant they may seem on the surface.
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