The Straight Story (1999)

Dir. David Lynch. Starring Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, James Cada

When I was in college, I took a class on environmental writing, which was the place I first learned about Aldo Leopold and Barry Lopez, among other folks. We got to Of Wolves and Men far enough into the semester that we were all a little leery of coming off as anthropocentric, which was the word we generally substituted for “problematic” during class. There’s a picture in Of Wolves and Men of these little wolf puppies that our professor pointed out to us. He asked us if they were cute. He was a lot smarter than us. A lot. And occasionally he decided to nudge us in the ribs a little. We hemmed and hawed; we didn’t want to be anthropocentric, or say the wrong thing. “Of course they’re cute!” he said. David Lynch knew what my professor knew when he made The Straight Story, one of those high concept movies which, if he’d made it twenty years later, could have been done on an iPhone. Sometimes, something is cute like a wolf puppy, or funny like a guy driving a lawnmower across state lines. It’s okay to coo over a litter of puppies and it’s okay to chuckle when you watch this geezer driving a John Deere on the shoulder of a highway. It’s a way in, not an end in itself. Lopez made a case in his book that wolves have souls; Lynch made a case in his movie that love never runs out of signifiers.

Add The Straight Story to my list of perfect movies, the ones that are entirely finished when they fade to black and which don’t need anything added to them. I was never concerned that Alvin Straight (Farnsworth) wouldn’t make it to Wisconsin to see his ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton); I’ll admit to a little concern that his brother would be dead, and a lot of concern about how he’d get back to Iowa. I’ll also admit that I hoped that he’d let Danny (Cada) drive him the rest of the way after he’d already come so far on his lawnmower. There’s a frightening scene where the brakes give out on the mower and Alvin careens down a hill. The lawnmower badly needs repairs after this harrowing experience, which brings multiple people running. Danny and his wife put Alvin up while he waits for his mower to be repaired, but and in the interim Danny offers his help to Alvin. For my wife and me, he says, it’s a Sunday drive to your brother. You’d have to drive across the Mississippi River, for heaven’s sake. Won’t you let us take you? Alvin, who is stubborn in the classically ’50s sense, refuses kindly and firmly. I have to do this my own way, he replies, and in the moment it feels like he’s finishing off the pride sprinkles on his hubris sundae; he keeps a real distance between himself and the Riordans, paying for a phone call he makes on their phone and refusing to even enter their home. That’s where Lynch trips us a little, or maybe it’s more generous to say that he diverts us. This is the same cute old man who has gotten funny looks from everyone, friends and family and strangers alike, when he putters by. We’re being led to believe that this is more of the same, an opportunity to use Alvin’s stubbornness and slyness for humor. And it is! Alvin gets the better of two mechanics who spend more time berating each other than fixing his riding mower, knocking their fee down accordingly. Towards the beginning of the movie, he sets out to see his brother in a rickety riding mower that doesn’t get more than a few miles out of town before it gives up the ghost; Alvin shoots the thing and watches it burst into flames like it’s a Monty Python sketch. But it’s also deeply important that Alvin does not arrive at his brother’s home in a car, no matter how neighborly the offer or how practical it is. The tractor is symbolic not just of the love Alvin holds for Lyle, but of the penance he’s doing.

Years ago, Alvin and Lyle lost their tempers, had a fight, and haven’t spoken since. Alvin is no longer able to drive, and so he sets out to see his brother on this riding mower. Although he’s not exactly overwhelmed with close friends, surely he could have found somebody to drive him the four or five hours it would have taken to go by car. Alvin knows what the pilgrims of old knew, that the value in seeking a blessing or forgiveness at a shrine is as much in the journey to it. This is an old man, one who in real life had just two years left. (Alvin Straight spent, by my calculation, something like five percent of his remaining lifespan on his mower traveling to see Lyle.) There is sacrifice in every foot of the journey, and Lyle knows it. Stanton’s reaction to the mower is sublime. Lyle sees the thing once he and Alvin are situated on the porch; he asks if Alvin drove on that thing to see him; Alvin affirms; Lyle’s eyes fill with tears. In a movie which plays no visual tricks and is shot so simply that helicopter shots of combine harvesters feel luxurious, this is simple, overwhelming direction and wonderful performance. Alvin says, “I did, Lyle,” and what we hear is “Forgive me, I miss you, I’m sorry, I was wrong, I love you.” The lawnmower can still be funny, but I can’t imagine ever looking at a John Deere the same way ever again.

Lynch will endure because of his ability to dissect Americana and find what is festering, seedy, or uncanny underneath it. This is the premise, at least, for Blue Velvet (small towns) and Mulholland Dr. (Los Angeles) and to some extent Eraserhead, where the industrial setting is fecund with dark associations. It’s amazing to see that in The Straight Story, Lynch has largely ignored that darkness. The road to Mount Zion is paved with small kindnesses. A salesman at the John Deere in Laurens, Iowa, sells Alvin a mower; it turns out that he used to own it and took care of it himself, which solidifies our confidence in Alvin’s ability to make this journey. Danny and his wife are just a few of the people in their town who try to support Alvin and help him when he nearly crashes. A barman just miles from Lyle gives Alvin the first beer he’s had in years, and more importantly listens to the story of the man’s arduous journey. My favorite is the young women aiming to hitchhike who Alvin passes on his impromptu rig—even if he could give her a ride, would she want one?—and who makes her way to his little campfire once the sun has gone down. Want a wiener? he asks. It comes out that she’s pregnant, that she’s running away from home. After one of those very Midwestern talks over a hot dog, they go to sleep; he wakes up and finds a bundle of sticks tied together in her place. The meaning is primarily symbolic—it’s harder to break a group of sticks than a single one, just as it’s harder to break a family than one of its individual members—but there’s something literal about it as well. It can’t be easy for a man walking around with two canes to collect firewood or kindling; she’s saved him time, energy, and pain with those sticks. He’s using a grabber he browbeat one of his Laurens friends into selling to him to do that job (“Geez, Alvin…”), but she doesn’t know that.

Instead of finding sleaze and corruption, Lynch posits that in this part of the country what’s being hidden is a little more real and painful than a man’s ear in the grass. Over a non-alcoholic drink, Alvin reminisces about his soldiering during World War II with a fellow geezer. I was a sharpshooter, Alvin says. Grew up with a gun, after all. He slowly wanders into a story about the time he shot and killed one of his friends. He was returning to the American lines, but unable to discern friend from foe, Alvin fired on him. When the rest of the men found his body, Alvin stayed silent as to the reason why he was dead; it’s a secret he has carried, presumably, for a full five decades. Alvin’s daughter Rose (Spacek) had several children, but was deemed unfit to take care of them when her mental disability was blamed for a fire. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t think about them, Alvin says, and we suddenly understand why she looks so deeply and so longingly at the children who pass by. What are these other people hiding, Lynch wonders, underneath their friendly exteriors? What’s in plain sight in these forever fields that only requires us to bend the stalks a little for us to find it? Does it only take the novelty of a man’s riding mower on the shoulder of the interstate to stir these ideas up from our guts?

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