(a “nothing straight about this story” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
If someone had told me director David Lynch was going to direct a “sweet” film rated G and Walt Disney was going to produce it, I would have said they were crazy. This is the same David Lynch who gave us BLUE VELVET and the TV series TWIN PEAKS and other films that one can easily label as disturbing and unrelentingly violent. But if we play the director’s tape through, this is also the same David Lynch who gave us THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) which was a film deeply moving about the life of John Merrick, a man with a disturbing outward appearance but the heart and soul of a kind poet. So, no crazy here that director Lynch would give us THE STRAIGHT STORY about Alvin Straight, a heart and soul of a kind poet, also a film deeply moving and deeply transitory, as most of our personal and spiritual journeys are.
THE STRAIGHT STORY is a biographical film of the real Alvin Straight who traveled from Iowa to Wisconsin on a lawn mower to see his ailing brother. I was talking with a friend about this film, and he told me it’s not legal to drive a lawn mower on the road. I told him, “I don’t know about that. All I know is Alvin Straight did and we are all the better that he did.” Alvin Straight is played by actor Richard Farnsworth who gives a heartfelt and deeply tender and exquisite performance. Sissy Spacek plays his daughter, Rose, and she is also brilliant. What is David Lynch’s claim to unique and original fame is that he takes stories right out of the colors of a Normal Rockwell painting and turns his stories into dark and brooding shades of what lies underneath these idyllic “family paintings.” But as dark and brooding as Lynch explores in his stories, he also finds the humanity of that deep yearning for connection and transformation. It’s like Lynch in his stories is telling us something I believe wholeheartedly: You have to explore the dark and brooding to find the light and freedom to humanly connect. This puts David Lynch in a class of his own.
THE STRAIGHT STORY is not at all “straight,” for Alvin has complications with his lawn mower along the way to see his brother, but it’s more the complications of the people Alvin meet that make his journey “nothing straight about this story.” Alvin meets a pregnant runaway who is in the throes of shame and regret from feeling ostracized from her family. Alvin tells her a “nothing straight about this story” game that he used to play with his kids. He would give each kid a stick and tell them to break it, which they could easily do. Then, he would give the kids a bunch of sticks bundled together and tell them to break them, which they could not easily do at all. Alvin would tell his kids, “that’s family.” The runaway must have been transformed by that because when Alvin wakes up in the morning after this discussion with her, she is gone, leaving behind only a bunch of sticks bundled together. And then there’s the “nothing straight about this story” Alvin has with a fellow war veteran. They share their pain, regret, grief and guilt over killing men in their tour of duty. Both men weep during their shares, and we weep right along with them because their pain, regret, grief and guilt are ours, whether in the trenches or not. And I will not give away the ending to THE STRAIGHT STORY, but I will give away the “nothing straight about this story” journey of Alvin Straight being a deeply fulfilling one and, yes, transitory. It’s an ending that is about two brothers who bury the hatchet to be those bunch of sticks bundled together that cannot, no, not EVER be broken.
In someone’s hands other than director David Lynch, THE STRAIGHT STORY might have been ridiculous and even ludicrous, but Lynch is a director who understands what happens when “nothing straight about this story” is actually a journey to salvation. Lynch is in no way, shape, or form a “Christian” director, but he is a director who understands Christian values, i.e., an inner journey that while on the outside might look ugly is actually beautiful on the inside because of the transformation and salvation of one’s spirit. Lynch is a “anti-Pharisaical” director; he has ZERO desire to direct on the surface but rather directs for the inner landscape of one’s journey to familial connection and the necessary (and desperate) need to communicate. Yes, Jesus Christ would have VERY much liked David Lynch’s films, I think.
There is something about the phrasing of “another stranger” that appeals to me and I think is applicable to THE STRAIGHT STORY. I hear this phrasing just about every day when I listen to Lady Gaga’s song, “I’ll Never Love Again,” from the film, A STAR IS BORN (2018). And I’m reminded of the Bible Verse, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Alvin Straight in THE STRAIGHT STORY meets “another stranger” after another on his lawn mower, and I think our own journeys are about meeting “another stranger” after another. It’s precisely these “strangers” who are our angels on our journeys. They are, in fact, NOT “strangers” at all if we show them hospitality. With this, they become necessary, what I would call essentials, to our own transformative journeys.
THE STRAIGHT STORY is David Lynch’s most accessible film, tender and hopeful. It is Richard Farnsworth giving a haunting and satisfying (BOTH) performance as Alvin Straight. And it is a “nothing straight about this story” film that informs us all we are on this same kind of journey as Alvin Straight, and we are all poised to heal tremendously from “another stranger” journey, whether we take that journey on foot or on a lawn mower.