The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch, is a 1999 biographical film which portrays the idiosyncratic odyssey of Alvin Straight.
The film begins when Alvin Straight, an old man living in Laurens, Iowa, does not show up to meet his friends at their usual place. Worried, Alvin’s friends go looking for him at his home where they find Alvin has fallen in the kitchen. Alvin’s friends and daughter, Rose, fuss over him and force him to visit the doctor to make sure everything’s alright. While in the doctor’s office, Alvin is warned to stop his tobacco use and told to use a frame walker because his hips are failing. However, Alvin decides to use two canes instead of the walker. Soon after he arrives back home, Alvin hears his daughter on the phone with bad news: his estranged brother, Lyle, has had a stroke.
Alvin quickly decides that he must go to his brother and repair their relationship, but he cannot legally obtain a driver’s license due to his failing eyesight. Rose offers to take him but he declines, insisting that he must go alone. The next morning finds Alvin out in his yard making repairs to an old lawnmower with which he plans to make the 240 mile drive from Lourens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin. While Alvin is fixing the mower, Rose supplies her father with Braunschweiger, or “weenies” to eat on his trip. Then with everything gathered, Alvin hitches a trailer to the back of the mower and begins the lone voyage across state lines which will, hopefully, allow him to repair his relationship with his brother.
The Straight Story is a road movie, but, unlike others of its genre such as Paris, Texas or Wild at Heart, the speed is about five miles an hour, which allows the film to immerse in the often sped-through cornfields of the Midwest. Angelo Badalamenti, a frequent Lynch collaborator, composes a fittingly atmospheric score of steady fiddle music, acoustic guitar, and ambient drones, but the movie is not all tranquil meandering. Using film techniques often found in horror movies, Lynch turns benign scenes into ones that suggest danger. A semi-truck speeding by, a group of bicyclists, and a controlled burning—all these scenes, because of tactful camera angles, appear more menacing than they should. The danger of Alvin’s venture is never forgotten for long, but neither is the hope of it, as Alvin meets an assortment of people on his journey who he helps or who help him. The film balances unease and hope dexterously. Because of this, it never tips its hand to reveal if Alvin’s quest will be successful or unsuccessful.
The Straight Story could be a family movie. However, the slow pacing and at-times sparse dialogue may make it a difficult watch for younger children, so the film is probably best suited to an adult audience due its themes of aging, reconciliation, and death. Along with the thematic draw, the film has special credentials in that it is based on a true story. Alvin Straight was a real man who really did make an across-state trip on a John Deere tractor. Knowing this fact, the film takes on a new appeal as it is a reminder that the human spirit can still overcome difficulties, not only in a literal manner, but in one that is deeply meaningful.