Exploring the Human Condition in The Straight Story and the Films of David Lynch 

In an early scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story, a developmentally disabled young woman named Rose Straight (Sissy Spacek) stands in line at the grocery store, carrying an armful of braunschweiger and other lunchmeat. Sensing an opportunity for small talk, the cashier raises an eyebrow at the unusually large amount of food and asks Rose if she’s throwing a party. Rose attempts to conform to the polite formality of their conversation, but her speech impediment makes it difficult for her to express herself. What follows is an exchange filled with non sequiturs and double takes where both characters meet and miss each other’s meanings, before Rose mentions that she hates braunschweiger. Instead of reacting with patronizing condescension or annoyance, the cashier simply smiles good naturedly and leans in to confide to Rose that she also hates braunschweiger, and the two women share mutual looks of disgust. 

On my second viewing of The Straight Story, I was struck by the simplicity of this scene and how David Lynch was able to turn a snapshot of everyday life into a quirky but meaningful bond between two ordinary people. Despite the breakdown in their conversation, Rose is never treated with anything less than respect and acceptance, and both women are still able to find something in common to connect over. The Straight Story is filled with moments like, where kindness and understanding are expressed not through dramatic gestures or words, but moments of conversation and a willingness to listen. 

Skimming David Lynch’s filmography, he seems like the last person one would expect to direct a movie like The Straight Story. He’s known for creating surreal thrillers that straddle the line between horror and arthouse and is an experimental filmmaker in the sense that none of his films are exactly the same even if they carry the same themes. For example, Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) are both deeply disturbing mysteries centered around small towns that tackle abuse and prostitution in two entirely different genres, one being a neo-noir thriller and the other a psychological horror movie.  

What connects The Straight Story with the rest of Lynch’s creative output is the common thread they all share, where characters struggle through life and try to make sense of their own brokenness. Lynch’s movies are about people from all walks of life who face the darkness of the world with kindness and empathy, in defiance of what other people expect of them. In Twin Peaks, Dale Cooper is an FBI agent who sets himself apart from his peers by being unwaveringly peaceful and compassionate, choosing to treat the criminals and other malicious forces he faces with love instead of fear. In The Elephant Man (1980), John Merrick is an intelligent, gentle man who lashes back against his tormentors not with hatred or violence, but instead with outspoken insistence that he’s still human and thus deserves to be treated like one. In The Straight Story, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) stays determined to see his brother and bears the brunt of his friends and neighbors’ lack of belief that he’ll accomplish his mission, staying the course and remaining tencious despite the setbacks he faces. In this regard, the lack of oppressive darkness common in the rest of Lynch’s movies may be new, but the humanity isn’t.

In The Straight Story, Alvin Straight is an elderly farmer living in Iowa who one day gets word that his estranged brother in Wisconsin has suffered a massive stroke. Against the protests of his daughter Rose and their neighbors, he hitches a trailer to his riding lawnmower and sets out on a 240 journey to see his brother. Along the way, he crosses paths with a number of people on his trip, many of them by chance like a group of cyclists who pass him on the road and later welcome him to their camp for the night, and a concerned family who offers him a place to stay while he gets his mower repaired. In each one of these instances, there are no ulterior motives, no punchline or catch to their kindness; the people Alvin meets simply want to help him because they can and they want to.

This compassion extends both ways, as seen one night when his campfire attracts the attention of a pregnant teenage runaway. Cautiously approaching, the teen decides to spend the night with him, partially because she has nowhere else to go, but mainly because Alvin immediately shows a willingness to listen to her without judgment. As the two have a conversation by the fire, it becomes clear that she has away because she’s afraid of how her parents might react to her pregnancy. Alvin comforts her by using a bundle of sticks as a metaphor for the bond of a family — one by itself can break, but not all of them when they’re together. The girl sits in contemplative silence, and it isn’t until the next morning that we see how she’s taken Alvin’s message in the form of the bundle of sticks she leaves in her empty seat by the campfire.

In Lynch’s more supernaturally-inclined movies like Twin Peaks, its spiritual successor Mulholland Drive (2001), and Lost Highway (1997), otherworldly forces are used as vehicles for real world issues — sexual abuse, broken dreams, adultery, and guilt. Without the paranormal, The Straight Story’s themes are markedly raw and more real. Death is the unseen specter that looms over the movie with Alvin’s quest to reconnect with his brother born from a desire to see him one last time before he dies. Alvin’s own deteriorating health is noted more than once by other characters, and the trauma the audience slowly begins to realize he’s struggling with as the movie reaches its climax is revealed to have been born from the tragedies he witnessed as a World War II veteran. Rather than preoccupying itself with the origins, the film instead explores the ways that people cope with their pain — some through silence, others through avoidance, and some through finding solace in others who share their hurt.

This darkness doesn’t dimmish the film’s impact. It only adds to the sincerity of its message and the gentleness it expresses it with. Even the most harrowing of Lynch’s movies have a sense of hopefulness that life, for all its random and unfair pain, still has goodness in it in the people we meet and the things we’re able to accomplish out of love. The Straight Story just happens to be the most, well, straightforward with conveying that philosophy. In a world so divided that it can feel impossible keep sight of that goodness, it’s a message that holds true now more than ever.

The Straight Story is currently streaming on Disney+.