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The Straight Story
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When I saw Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, I was convinced that David Lynch is an essentially conservative and religious filmmaker, with a populist and mystical bent. Arguing that thesis was an uphill battle as his work got increasingly dark in the nineties. Many people interpreted Lynch’s portrayals of quirky, salt-of-the-Earth white Americans as parody, his mysticism as arbitrary weirdness, and his depictions of evil and violence as inconsistent with having a conservative and religious moral center. (They’d probably argue the same thing about Flannery O’Connor as well—and just as wrongly.)

Then came 1999’s The Straight Story, which reprises all the wholesome, life-affirming, and sentimental elements of Lynch’s earlier works without the darkness, terror, and demonic evil. The Straight Story is so wholesome, in fact, that it was rated G and released by Disney.

The Straight Story is the story of Alvin Straight (1920–1996), a small-town Iowan who at the age of 73 decided to visit his stroke-stricken brother 240 miles away in Wisconsin. What makes Straight’s journey interesting is how he did it. Alvin didn’t have a driver’s license because his eyes are bad. So he put a hitch on his riding lawnmower, hooked up a small trailer full of fuel, food, and camping equipment, and set out for Wisconsin, driving five miles an hour along the side of roads and camping in the fields at night. All told, the journey took six weeks, including breakdowns and repairs. (Then a nephew drove Alvin and his lawnmower back home.)

The basic characters and outline of The Straight Story are based on fact, but many of the details strike me as pure Lynch. Lynch did not, however, write the screenplay, although it was co-authored by his longtime collaborator (and third wife) Mary Sweeney. Perhaps Lynch was attracted to the project because it was already sufficiently “Lynchian.”

The entire cast of The Straight Story is white, and they are Lynch’s trademark quirky, good-hearted, small-town Americans.

Alvin Straight is beautifully portrayed by Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Alvin is a soft-spoken, gentle man who stubbornly tries to cling to his independence and dignity as old-age and illness strip them from him. Farnsworth lived his role. He was suffering from metastatic prostate cancer while filming and took his life the next year at the age of 80. He brings Alvin to life with warmth and gentle humor. He is particularly powerful when relating sad memories, such as his daughter Rose’s loss of her four children, and his terrible guilt about accidentally killing a member of his own unit during World War II. But to me the most touching scene is simply watching Alvin’s face as he silently overhears the bad news that his brother Lyle has had a stroke.

Sissy Spacek is wonderful as Alvin’s slightly “special” (perhaps autistic) daughter Rose. Everett McGill, of Dune and Twin Peaks fame, plays Tom, a John Deere salesman. Harry Dean Stanton (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks: The Return), has an almost wordless role as Alvin’s brother Lyle. The rest of the cast are local Midwesterners, and they are uniformly excellent.

As Alvin makes his journey, he dispenses bits of wisdom to the people he meets.

In one scene, he camps with a surly teenage runaway girl who slowly warms to him. Alvin intuits that she is running away because she is pregnant and urges her to return home. She can only think of the enmity of her family, but Alvin suggests there is strength in family as well, using a very concrete and primal metaphor: the fasces. An individual twig can be broken, but tie them together in a bundle, and they become strong. The next morning, the girl is gone. But she communicated her decision by leaving a bundle of sticks.

In another scene, Alvin and a fellow WWII veteran share painful memories of friends they lost. But the Germans are not dehumanized. In fact, Alvin mentions that at the end of the war, “We were shooting moon-faced boys.” The war is simply presented as a senseless waste of life, which it was.

The Straight Story is a warm and sentimental portrait of the American Midwest and its people. Lynch filmed it on location, on the actual route Alvin took. He also filmed every scene in the order in which it appears. In short, Lynch took Alvin’s journey. The Straight Story contains Lynch’s most beautiful nature photography. It is set during harvest time, with rippling fields of ripe grain, vivid sunsets, and autumn leaves, all suffused with gold.

Yet, despite its seeming straightforwardness, Lynch characterized The Straight Story as his “most experimental movie” thus far. To my eyes, it is an experiment in being naïve and spontaneous. One scene plays gently with movie conventions. We see Alvin driving his tractor down the road away from us, then the camera slowly pans up into the beautiful blue sky—then slowly back down to Alvin, who, of course, has only gone a few more feet. Whenever I saw it in a theater, this always provoked gales of good-natured laughter, because if this were any other movie, and Alvin were riding anything other than a lawnmower, he would be just a dot in the distance.

There are many Lynchian touches beyond the affectionate portrayals of quirky and sometimes grotesque Midwesterners. Lynch’s trademark depiction of technology as an ominous and dehumanizing force—using loud mechanical thrumming and screeches—is used to good effect with a grain elevator at night and also huge semi trucks looming over Alvin and his vulnerable, hobbit-scale technology.

When Alvin’s brakes give out and he comes hurtling down a hill, the sequence is viscerally real. Like Alvin, we feel out of control and jarred to our bones. Yet the backdrop of a burning building gives the scene an apocalyptic and surreal quality.

When Alvin sees a deer killed by a hysterical female motorist, he of course uses it to replenish his supplies, cooking it over a fire—while surrounded by a lawn statues of deer out in the middle of nowhere.

Lynch is a director who believes in the reality of the supernatural. There is only one scene that suggests such powers in The Straight Story, and it is masterfully handled. The real Alvin Straight’s tractor conked out just short of his brother’s house, and he was towed the rest of the way by a local farmer. In Lynch’s film, when Alvin’s tractor conks out, a man on a much bigger tractor pulls up. We see the whole thing from a distance, too far to clearly hear the dialogue. Lynch has used the same technique in two earlier scenes of the movie. We also get no closeup of the farmer’s face. He seems to simply suggest that Alvin try starting his tractor again, and lo, it works. The big tractor then pulls in front and leads Alvin to the driveway of his brother, pointing to the turn, then continues on with a wave goodbye. The big tractor/little tractor contrast, the uncanniness of the distance, and the lack of any explanation for why Alvin’s tractor started again all suggest a bit of well-deserved divine intervention, after a wonderful demonstration of American ingenuity, independence, and self-help.

Another outstanding feature of The Straight Story is longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s beautiful score, which is the best thing he has composed since his iconic music for Twin Peaks.


The Straight Story received universal acclaim from critics and Lynch fans, but it did not break out of those circles to become a box office success, nor is it well represented on home video. The DVD has no extras, and the only Blu-ray I could find is Japanese. The CD of the soundtrack and the book of the script are also long out of print. The Straight Story is long overdue for a critical reappraisal—and a Criterion Collection Blu-ray with all the trimmings—for it is truly one of Lynch’s finest works.

The Straight Story is a film about American pluck and ingenuity, the importance of family, the necessity of forgiveness, and growing old with independence and dignity. If you have conservative and populist tastes, love Americana, and are looking for a wholesome, artful, and deeply touching story you can enjoy with your whole family, see The Straight Story. It is the last film most people would expect from David Lynch, but it comes straight from his heart.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood, Movies 
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  1. Nice review and excellent recommendation.

    Those, who don’t get the rest of Lynch’s work, don’t understand that you can’t be happy unless you accept sadness. Nor be authentically wholesome and full of love, unless you accept the darkness. They don’t understand freedom at all! They want to turn all anti-progressivism into its equally stunted mirror image. That of a just too good, too polite, too decent vanity project that is as much a blot on the human soul as that which they seek to overcome.

    David Lynch has the courage, as a filmmaker, to look deeply into himself and to see what he truly wants.

  2. I wonder if there is a scene with a flickering or dimming light bulb. This is something that signifies the supernatural in all of Lynch’s works.

    • Replies: @Trevor Lynch
  3. Lynch is a pervert.

    • Replies: @G. Poulin
  4. @Hapalong Cassidy

    I wonder if there is a scene with a flickering or dimming light bulb. This is something that signifies the supernatural in all of Lynch’s works.

    You are correct about this. But there isn’t such a scene in The Straight Story. The closest thing is the scene where Alvin and Rose watch and listen to a thunderstorm. I think the use of flickering light by Lynch is connected with the presence of supernatural evil. But that dimension is lacking here. The only evils are natural: the decay of old age, accidents, and transgressions without forgiveness.

    • Replies: @Happy tapir
  5. G. Poulin says:

    …said the pot to the kettle.

  6. @Priss Factor

    I am out of “Agree”s and “Thanks” for a few more hours, so let me say “Thanks!” for a link to a truly great review (i.e., the first review cited; I’ll check out the second review later).

    Being a Lynch fan, it is always satisfying to read an account that expands my understanding and appreciation of his artistic creations. The linked review was truly remarkable in its insight.

    And while TL’s own assessment is finely crafted and engrossingly intellectual (as usual), I found the analysis offered in the first linked review a revelation in its ability to tie together many disparate elements that can easily sweep by unnoticed in the flurry of rapturous imagery that Lynch is so well known for.

    I have only seen “The Straight Story” once, when it first premiered. I will most definitely revisit it in the near future, as both reviews have stoked my desire to revisit it.

    Both the movie and TL’s review (and especially the one you linked) all deserve a”G” ratings: Great!

    Thanks again.

  7. @Trevor Lynch

    Hmm, I hadn’t noticed the lightbulb thing until you mentioned it, but I think it takes place when the blue cowboy appears in Mulholland Dr. Maybe he’s supernatural but I think he represents a benevolent figure, as opposed to the red devil, who seems bad bad bad.

    • Replies: @Trevor Lynch
  8. Lynch does like small town America and small town Americans, which sets him apart from most modern filmmakers, and unites him with Steve Spielberg on that front.

    But he’s far too much into sex and violence –and titillating us with them–to be moral or Christian. In fact, as that 4-hour “explainer” YouTube video of Twin Peaks points out, Lynch, being a New Age mediator, is very much into a dualistic balance. Which is why he takes the murder of Laura Palmer and makes it so dark and emotional—to contrast it with the overarching peace of the small town it takes place in. Paradise must have its matching sin.

    All goodness must be “balanced” by darkness in his manichean world. He might like the light stuff, but he likes the dark stuff equally as well. Frank Capra or John Ford in his world view he is not.

    • Replies: @Priss Factor
  9. @Happy tapir

    Hmm, I hadn’t noticed the lightbulb thing until you mentioned it, but I think it takes place when the blue cowboy appears in Mulholland Dr. Maybe he’s supernatural but I think he represents a benevolent figure, as opposed to the red devil, who seems bad bad bad.

    The cowboy is some sort of demonic ally and enforcer of the Hollywood system who has been called in to reassert control of Adam Kesher because he didn’t pick the right girl.

  10. Lynch on demise of art houses..

  11. @Trevor Lynch

    I guess it’s debatable, but my impression was that the cowboy was an angelic figure who convinced keser to be flexible and get his life back. We should document all the instances of the flickering light to figure out for sure. It could be a film studies paper “the supernatural in David Lynch.” Build our resumes for academia.

    • Replies: @Priss Factor
  12. @Trevor Lynch

    Whoever wanted Kesher to cast “the girl” , who was presumably banging someone powerful, was so powerful they were able to freeze his bank account. It’s reminiscent of the horse head in the bed in Godfather. Do you think the artists meant the Mafia?

  13. @Trevor Lynch

    The cowboy is some sort of demonic ally and enforcer of the Hollywood system who has been called in to reassert control of Adam Kesher because he didn’t pick the right girl.

    According to you, the cowboy is…precisely what he appears to be?

    “Next stop: Rocket Science!”

  14. I recall this movie coming out in ’99…but as a 20something then-lifelong Silicon Valley resident, it didn’t really interest me. But I’m turning 50 in September, and now live out on the Great Plains, and I find its subject matter a lot more potentially compelling.

    So thanks for the recommendation. We’ll be watching this tonight. I feel confident my wife will also enjoy it.

  15. @Happy tapir

    The ‘cowboy’ is just a prop inside Diane Selwyn’s mind. In fact, the real-life director has no beef with the system. He is a player, not an artist. He doesn’t need any ‘cowboy’ to get him back in line. He’s happy to be part of the system making pop fantasies for the masses. And the director freely chose the dark-haired beauty over Diane Selwyn, a girl with pretty face but without much talent. Diane Selwyn saw the ‘cowboy’ at the director’s party. The guy is surely not a real cowboy but some Hollywood extra or eccentric.

    But in Selwyn’s fantasy with herself as Betty, she is the REAL talent, and the director is a man of some integrity and courage. He didn’t want to be pushed around. He pushed back and folded only under immense pressure. For a brief instance, he saw Betty and was so captivated and wanted to choose HER but was forced otherwise by the system.

    In real-life, the director is a happy camper who is just fine with the system, and Diane Selwyn is a third-rate talent, a dime-a-dozen at the margins of Hollywood.
    In the fantasy, the director has some artistic integrity and is wronged not only by the corrupt system but by his cheating wife. (In real life, Diane was the ‘victim’ of her bi-sexual lover’s infidelity, but in the fantasy, Diane makes the director undergo her humiliation, a figure of empathy.) In the fantasy, Diane-as-Betty is a one-in-a-million-talent, someone who SHOULD rise to the top, but it was prevented ONLY by the System and Betty’s kind-hearted compassion for ‘Rita’, for whose well-being she is willing to forestall or even sacrifice her own success. In her fantasy, Diane is telling herself that, if the shoe were on the other foot and if SHE HAD THE TALENT and POSSIBILITY OF SUCCESS, she would not have become so arrogant, stuckup, and downright sadistic like her former friend; she would have been like Cinderella, a good girl. (In reality, Diane is a bitter and resentful person like the envious queen in SNOW WHITE and even hires a killer to assassinate her former friend/lover, though, to be sure, she is haunted by what she did like a character in Edgar Allan Poe story.)

    So, the ‘cowboy’ is a figment in Selywn’s mind. He’s just some fringe figure in Hollywood who is transformed into a dark enforcer in the fantasy. He cuts across as an odd figure because he comes across as both old-fashioned straight-shooter and a crooked henchman of the system. He is both the traditional cowboy and gangland sociopath. In the Western, such a figure talks straight to knock some sense into other men and restore order and honor(like the cowboy in BIG LEBOWSKI). In the fantasy, his style is talking straight but his substance in to serve the Dark System. (Richard Farnsworth in STRAIGHT STORY is both like a straight-talking cowboy and self-deceiving scoundrel who made a wreck of his life.)

    Now, does the fact that the System is all part of Selwyn’s fantasy mean that such a system doesn’t exist? No. Deep-state-like conspiratorial systems are everywhere, both among criminals and legit types. Mormons, for example, are considered as some of the most honest, diligent, and conservative people in America, but they are deeply embedded with the Deep State and Mammon.

    However, deep-state-systems are not only pervasive in actuality but exist in the psychological landscape of speculation/paranoia and even serve a therapeutic function as rationalization.
    Kafka’s THE TRIAL can be interpreted as a critique of modern power systems but can also be understood as an exploration of the labyrinthine mind, the one in which each of us is like Theseus inside the cavernous maze. After all, every mind is a system with its mysteries. Each of us uses his/her mind to think, make sense, and figure things out, but the mind isn’t only a tool but a universe of mysteries beyond comprehension. Joseph K. could be seen as falsely accused by the system or indicted by his own nature/anxieties as it’s natural for even non-criminals to feel guilt or ‘sinful’ about something.

    The real ‘tragedy’ for Selwyn is that the real system had no use for her. She didn’t even register as a minor blip in the system’s radar. To Hollywood, her ilk is just one of the countless many who come to Hollywood to try out their luck. It’s like Las Vegas is a system alright but has no interest in all the countless fools who come to win the jackpot. It’s just another sucker who will leave few dollars poorer.

    Thus, the paranoid conspiracy in Selwyn’s fantasy is both unnerving and assuring. It is frightening, revealed as a force that can threaten the life of a big-name director to bend his will. It can hire cold-blooded assassins. It has all kind of pull.
    However, the notion that such an elaborate System took pains to manipulate events so that the director wouldn’t connect with Betty, the rightful star, is comforting to Diane’s ego because it implies that only a great power(and Betty’s good heart for Rita) prevented her instant success and stardom. It took the tower of power to keep her down.

    As someone who worked in the industry, Lynch surely knows how the System works. He knows of its corruption and compromises. And yet, he must also know that many losers in L.A. are simply that. Losers with no talent, no prospects whatsoever. But human psychology being what it is, it prefers fantasy over reality. Diane would prefer to believe in the fantasy of the System that kept her down than the reality that she never would have amounted to anything. There is nothing more frightening that confronting cold hard facts face to face. This is why Alex Jones has an audience. Not because he’s wrong about there being conspiracies but because he offers conspiratorial fantasies as mass therapy for those who want to believe in dark fairy-tales than cold hard facts.

    Three lesser but interesting movies that make interesting comparisons with MUL DR are THE SWIMMER(based on John Cheever short story), I AM THE CHEESE, and KWIK STOP, an indie film so true about dream and reality.

    • Replies: @Happy tapir
    , @Happy tapir
  16. @R.G. Camara

    Lynch does like small town America and small town Americans, which sets him apart from most modern filmmakers, and unites him with Steve Spielberg on that front.

    If you like Small Town American theme, you might like TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL and HOUSEKEEPING.

    Watch them if you haven’t already. (Forsyth’s LOCAL HERO, a small town film set in Scotland, is even better than HOUSEKEEPING. A true cult classic.)

    BLUE VELVET is many people’s favorite, but I prefer SOMETHING WILD(also released in 1986), another film about the dark side of small town America. (Demme’s other masterpiece is MELVIN AND HOWARD. LAST EMBRACE isn’t much but one of the more disturbing movies about Jewish memory. Demme’s biggest success, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, was him at his sleaziest. As if to atone for the undeserved success, he mostly made Message Movies afterwards that are utterly forgettable.)

  17. @Priss Factor

    Compelling exegesis. What is the red devil?

  18. @Priss Factor

    The recent ascendency of qanon is another case of desire to believe in a conspiracy, but exactly the wrong one! People seek the conspiracies that assuage their egos and bolster their biases.

  19. Anonymous[353] • Disclaimer says:

    Maybe T. Lynch should review some rock albums and music.

  20. This is a great film. It has nothing to do with whiteness, save tat the story is comprised of people who are white and exist in communities in which there are few if any black —- uuhhhh not unusual for demographic of 200 million whites —-

    Mr. lynch himself is unfamiliar with blacks outside his tropes. hi middle Us upbringing, generally reflected that of most whites — rare encounters with blacks.

    But this movie is fairly straight tale. And that alone makes it compelling as well as the odd and not so odd men and women that are spattered in its telling. But what what makes it work. What makes it standout is the powerful and compelling performance of one of the best understated narrative voices in the country

    Mr. Richard Farnsworth . . .

    this is a wonderful film about reconciliation and coming to terms family with self. Regardless of one’s skin color the impact is straight forward.

    • Replies: @EliteCommInc.
  21. @EliteCommInc.

    Interestingly enough . . . Mr. Lynch, thinks that BLM has a some salience. And i would not be the least surprised to discover his experience shapes that view.

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