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Let's Get Things Straight

A Review of the Movie, "The Straight Story"

In the first recorded crime in the Bible, brother murders brother: Cain slays Abel out of jealousy. The pages of scripture that follow are filled with stories of difficult, often destructive relationships between siblings: Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. Certainly the most sanguinary and cold-blooded display of fratricide occurs in the book of Judges, when Abimelech massacres his seventy brothers! From the beginning of human history, one of the closest of family relationships is fraught with the dangers of alienation and violence.

At the same time, the Bible extols the relationship between siblings as the epitome of peace, most poignantly in Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.…For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (NRSV). In the gospels, close spiritual connections are described as familial in general and fraternal in particular: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus tells his followers. As soon as Andrew met Jesus, he found his brother, Peter, and led him to the Messiah. For all their differences, sisters Mary and Martha were united in their devotion to Christ. This harmony between siblings thus becomes a key element in finding peace with God.

Although David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) is not an explicitly Christian film, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) clearly identifies the conflict between himself and his older brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), as biblical. When asked by a priest (John Lordan) what came between them, Alvin tells him that theirs is a “story as old as the Bible—Cain and Abel. Anger, vanity—you mix that together with liquor, you’ve got two brothers who haven’t spoken in ten years.” This scene takes place in a cemetery, a visual reminder of the physical death that neither Alvin nor his brother can avoid, but also a suggestion of the spiritual death that Alvin is determined to escape. In his race against time, his brother’s stroke and his own fragility emphasize the necessity of making reconciliation while it is still possible. “I just hope I’m not too late,” he says.

When my kids were real little, I used to play a game with ’em. I’d give each one of ’em a stick and—one for each one of ’em—then I’d say, “You break that.” ’Course they could, real easy. Then I’d say, “Tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that.” ’Course they couldn’t. Then I’d say, “That bundle—that’s family.” — Alvin Straight, The Straight Story

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. — Ecclesiastes 4:12

At the beginning of the film, Alvin’s doctor (Dan Flannery) addresses his physical condition: two bad hips, neglected diabetes, and incipient emphysema. Alvin’s characteristic stubbornness emerges immediately; he refuses to use a walker, rejects any further tests, and as for smoking—the next scene shows him enjoying a cigar. When he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke, however, Alvin transforms the doctor’s medical warning—“If you don’t make some changes quickly, there will be some serious consequences”—into spiritual counsel. He seeks to be reconciled with his brother.

Because of his failing eyesight, Alvin can no longer drive a car and will not take the bus. His journey by John Deere lawnmower from his house in Laurens, Iowa, to his brother’s home in the aptly-named Mount Zion, Wisconsin, is based on a true story. It is one of those wonderful occasions when reality is just as strange as some of the surreal movies for which David Lynch is better known (e.g., Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr.). But in films as different as The Elephant Man and Lost Highway, Lynch is interested in characters who must confront the unpleasant truth of their moral imperfections. Alvin Straight is just such a character. By one of those felicitous conjunctions of art and life, the person who made this mini-epic journey really was named “Straight,” creating the pun of the title and emphasizing the path he is determined to take. “I wanna make peace,” he tells the priest. “I wanna sit with him, look up at the stars like we used to do so long ago.” To which the priest replies, “Amen to that.”

Significantly, the stars are a recurring image in the film. The camera moves slowly forward into them at both the beginning and end; at two other key points in Alvin’s reflections he scans the evening sky. The stars are important because they remind Alvin of the childhood games of make-believe that he and his brother played while sleeping outdoors on summer nights in Moorhead, Minnesota. “Yeah, we pretty much talked each other through growin’ up,” he reminisces. Because of the perspective the stars provided, “they made our trials seem smaller.” In short, the stars represent the deep bond between the two brothers, so that every time Alvin looks at them he ponders what he has lost and what he still deeply needs.

The physical difficulty of the journey is, of course, a metaphor for the spiritual challenge of humility. “This trip is a hard swallow of my pride,” Alvin tells a set of contentious twin brothers (Kevin Farley and John Farley) who repair his lawnmower. Alvin’s pride perches him atop a lawnmower towing a trailer with no brakes, a hazardous means of transportation made all the more dangerous by his poor eyesight. But in a motif as old as Samson, Oedipus, and King Lear, the loss of physical sight is compensated by an increase of insight. “At my age,” he tells two young bicyclists (Matt Guidry and Bill McCallum), “I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff and let the small stuff fall away.”

Alvin presents a convincing picture of a man who has counted the cost of penance and set his face like flint to pay that cost to the last penny. He refuses a kind offer of help with the final leg of his journey, not simply because he is stubborn, but also because he understands that full humbling means finishing the task as he began it. The stubbornness of sin has been transfigured into the commitment of repentance.

For nearly thirty years David Lynch has helped to define avant-garde filmmaking, but The Straight Story also puts him in the company of the visionary Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. In his reflection on film in general and his own films in particular, Tarkovsky claimed that “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual.” The Straight Story suggests that the desire to be at peace with our own flesh and blood is evidence of spiritual longing.

While it is true that God is not explicitly present in this film, Alvin Straight’s words about his need for his brother powerfully express one of the divine intentions for family relationships: “There’s no one knows your life better than a brother that’s near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth.…A brother’s a brother.” In spite of all their differences and years of separation, even Jacob and Esau finally reunited. After they embraced each other and wept together, Jacob told his brother, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10 NRSV).

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