The Straight Story: A John Deere Letter

It’s difficult at first to imagine enjoying a movie about an old man who rides his lawn tractor almost 300 miles to visit his ailing brother. What could possibly be slower-paced or less interesting than that? Unless he has some wacky adventures along the way, or he encounters some crazy mixed-up characters who turn his world upside down, this sounds more like an insomnia cure than a work of art.

But David Lynch’s The Straight Story is absolutely a work of art, no matter how overused that phrase may be. This is the movie Lynch has called “my most experimental film,” which is saying something when you consider he made Eraserhead, and that’s literally just for starters.

Lynch’s fans have come to expect surreal, twisted tales told with captivating visuals, stories of people with dark secrets, plots that blur fantasy and reality. And there is a moment where it appears The Straight Story might suddenly veer into that direction — but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Richard Farnsworth, a man who had been appearing in films for over sixty years, stars as Alvin Straight, an aging Iowa man who learns his older brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke. Alvin wants to visit Lyle in the worst way. The two brothers haven’t spoken in ten years and left on unfriendly terms. Alvin knows his brother’s clock is ticking, and so is his own. His hips are starting to give out and his eyes already have, costing him his driver’s license. His daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), who lives with him, has an unspecified mental impairment and a Dodge Dart that can barely make it a few blocks. Alvin wants to visit Lyle … but he can’t get there. His brother lives in Mount Zion, Wisconsin, 300 miles from Alvin’s home in Laurens, Iowa. Then Alvin sets his eyes on his lawn tractor, which looks like it may have once belonged to Fred Flintstone. You can see the whole movie unfold in that moment. He knows he has to do this. And this is the only way he can.

His friends warn him he’ll never make it, and they’re right. But after a humiliating return to Laurens, Alvin empties his wallet for a newer lawn tractor (this one is only about thirty years old) and sets off again for Lyle’s house. He passes the place where his first tractor broke down. He encounters a young runaway who is moved by his story of the importance of family. He continues down US Highway 18 and all is fine until his tractor loses its drive belt descending into the town of Clermont, Iowa. He is taken in by a retired John Deere employee (James Cada) while his tractor is fixed by two dishonest, squabbling brothers (Peter and John Farley, brothers of Chris) who try to swindle him. He tells a secret to a fellow World War II veteran. He completes his journey and makes it to his brother’s house.

Not much of a story, hey? Old fool tries something people warn him against and refuses to accept that everyone else was right. But he presses on regardless. This still sounds like a movie where you watch an old man on a lawn tractor for two hours.

And it’s fair to say that, apart from the scene where Alvin almost packs it in descending into Clermont, there isn’t a lot of traditional action in this movie. But it’s not the story told that makes a movie great. It’s how the movie tells the story it tells. David Lynch tells this story with lots of silence and environmental noise. Alvin Straight is a man of few words, but his words are impactful. The visuals, always one of Lynch’s strong points, help communicate not merely the beauty of the landscape Alvin is driving through, but also the urgency of his trip. It’s autumn. Harvest season. The time when, just before dormancy and death, the trees put forth a full burst of color. I’m happy to report to my fellow Iowans that the motherland is absolutely beautiful in this picture, it’ll make you homesick for Iowa in the fall. You’ll probably even forgive Lynch for having RAGBRAI happen in September, and if you’ve ever lost track of your speed on that wickedly curving hill coming into Clermont from the west, like I have …

Though this isn’t an action-packed movie, the pace is surprisingly quick. There is little backstory, little exposition. Lynch shows rather than tells. We are surprised late in the movie to learn that Alvin’s been on the road for five weeks. It feels like he’s maybe been gone three or four days.

But more than that, Lynch has captured the spirit of the Midwest in this movie. Every character is just right. Few words, flat affect, and the actors all nail the Iowa accent. The old man to whom Straight tells his secret reacts in a perfect way, like he wants to just wail at the shared pain of their experience, but he’s looking for a tool that’s not in his toolbox. And Alvin looks the same way.

Ultimately this is not a movie about an old guy on a lawn tractor. It’s a movie about determination and regret and the determination not to die (or let someone else die) with one more regret on the table. It’s about getting older and realizing what is important in life — and what isn’t. It’s sweet without being saccharine. It paints a portrait of the rural Midwest that is perfectly accurate, not sentimental, not mocking, but just deeply real. Remember the one moment where I said it seemed like we were about to go off into a David Lynch mind-melt? It comes when Alvin waves at a driver who immediately hits a deer. We see her get out of her car. After nearly an hour of everyone’s flat affect, she’s a sudden burst of emotion. She’s hit thirteen deer in the past six weeks, and she has to drive forty miles on this road every day for work. That is a lot of deer to hit in such a short period of time, but any Midwesterner can tell you that if you drive long enough out in the country, it’s only a matter of time until you hit a deer of your own.

Yet the most Midwestern moment in whole movie is when Alvin finally makes it to Lyle’s house. Is there a big, tearful reunion? Do the brothers tearfully express their regrets over harsh words from a decade ago? Does Alvin apologize? Does Lyle?

“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?’ Lyle asks.

“I did, Lyle,” Alvin replies.

If you don’t know how that’s an “I love you” and an “I’m sorry,” you don’t know Midwestern men.

Please see this deeply moving and utterly gorgeous film. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

How did I watch this?: In September 2020, it could be streamed on Amazon Prime for $2.99 ($3.99 if you want HD, but SD was good enough for me).

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