If there is one currently working director whose work has been most codified into a sort of brand, there is no question that it is David Lynch. Indeed, the term Lynchian, an epithet usually reserved for the most iconic and stylistically bold auteurs (Hitchcockian, Ozuesque, Bergmanesque, etc.), has been applied to bizarre and surreal films the world over, for the most part incorrectly. There are many reasons for this of course; if you had to ask the average cinephile who their favorite cult director was, it would likely be Lynch, such is the nature of his success creatively (Eraserhead is one of the great midnight movies and movies in general, and Mulholland Drive is the most acclaimed film of the century). Coupled with this notoriety, his frequent use of confusing stories and evocatively surreal imagery seems to speak for itself.
But of course, what it means to be truly Lynchian is much more complicated and interesting than simply describing something as strange. Among his many, many talents, his knack for straightforward melodrama is intensely underrated: strip away the outré elements and Eraserhead is a simple story of a father attempting to care for his child, Blue Velvet’s emotional core is nakedly obvious, etc. Of course, it is inaccurate to reduce these strange and wonderful films to their core narratives, but this approach at looking at Lynch’s films meshes well with his perennial obsession with the dark underbelly of Americana. He uses iconography in a way that feels both ironic and totally sincere, both embracing and exposing the gaping wounds in a sort of national psyche.
Here, of course, is where The Straight Story, a sort of anomaly for Lynch, exists most comfortably. It is his only G-rated film, his only one made for Walt Disney Pictures, and perhaps significantly the only feature that he was not given a writer’s credit. But even though its narrative, that of the strange but true story of a man who drove 240 miles on a lawnmower to visit his dying brother, may be a strange fit for Lynch and his subdued aesthetic style is even more atypical (the first shot, a slow pan down into a window, is the most conventionally “Lynchian”), but it remains definably his film.
Oddly, The Straight Story most resembles Wild at Heart (Lynch’s most unhinged and uncontrolled film) in its road-trip structure; Alvin Straight (played with great magnanimity and gracefulness by Richard Farnsworth) has a very clear destination in mind, and he is determined to make it no matter the distance. He, too, is dying: the first scene is of him collapsing in his kitchen, and the reason is never explained. The notion that this is a sort of last rodeo for him is never made explicit but rather implied through his quietly devastating conversations with a whole cross-section of (the sometimes surreal in an everyday manner) Midwestern America, particularly with a fellow veteran in a bar. It is simple, yes, but it seems to ring with truth; when Alvin finally meets his brother face to face after ten years of estrangement, they sit in silence and acceptance. Of course, it is not explained how Alvin will get back home (the real Alvin was driven back home by his nephew) but there is a sense that it does not matter. Alvin’s journey has been completed in triumphant contemplation, and life goes on.
Ryan Swen is a freelance film critic and a volunteer at Scarecrow. He writes at Taipei Mansions and tweets at @swen_ryan, and his work can be found on Seattle Screen Scene and the Brooklyn Magazine Film Section.