Coming straight from his Eagle Scout’s heart, “The Straight Story” is David Lynch’s simplest, most straightforward and most mature film to date. The bizarre noir sensibility that has informed all of Lynch’s movies is nowhere to be found in this quiet, emotionally effective family tale of reconciliation, centering on an older man’s trip against all odds to visit his ailing brother. The characters’ age, deliberate pacing and underpopulated narrative will curtail commercial prospects, but pic should become a must-see for Lynch’s devotees and loyal indie viewers before reaching wider audiences in ancillary venues. Best marketing hook is central, shining performance by Richard Farnsworth, who dominates every frame, in a comeback role that’s his most poignant since his Oscar-nominated turn in “Comes a Horseman.”
Ever since “Wild at Heart,” which won the 1990 Cannes Palme d’Or, Lynch has stumbled with semi-successful, semi-coherent features that explored the perverse and the mysterious. This was last evident in “Lost Highway,” a return to form but a commercial failure. Favoring a gentle, starkly simple narrative and abandoning his surreal stylistic and thematic obsessions, Lynch has directed his most satisfyingly disciplined movie.
It’s almost irrelevant that “Straight Story” is based on actual events; Lynch has made a visionary film that ranks up there with his finest work, “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet.” A lyrical poem to America’s vast land and country folks, new pic is almost the opposite of Lynch’s explorations of sleazy urban milieus.
In the opening sequence, which recalls the beginning of “Blue Velvet,” Freddie Francis’ glorious camerawork tracks the vistas of a rustic small town, gliding over empty streets, white fences and wheat fields before resting on the face of a large elderly woman, Dorothy (Jane Galloway Heitz), who sunbathes in her yard while munching on cookies and drinking lemonade. It soon becomes clear that, unlike his previous pics, which created surreal, dreamlike worlds, this one will not penetrate ground level to disclose corrupt or deviant conduct.
Alvin Straight (Farnsworth) is a 73-year-old widower who lives with his speech-impaired daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), in the town of Laurens, Iowa. Stubbornly proud, he refuses to see a doctor, despite rapidly declining health, bad hips and emphysema. Literally dragged to the hospital, Alvin refuses to listen to medical warnings, reluctantly accepting the use of a second cane.
A phone call informs him that his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke, upon which Alvin determines to visit him in Wisconsin. Since Alvin has no car or driver’s license, the only mode of transport is his shabby lawn mower. First effort to ride the old machine fails, but, unfazed, Alvin buys a 30-year-old John Deere and hits the road again.
Structured as a road movie, “The Straight Story” refreshingly lacks the genre’s requisite thrills and comic relief. With only three or four stops along the way, and a minimal number of secondary roles, scripters John Roach and Mary Sweeney deftly construct a character who can be described as a gentleman cowboy of the old school, a Westerner who lives by a personal code of ethics.
Avoiding flashbacks, Lynch discloses crucial events of Alvin’s family life through his various encounters. It turns out that his wife, who died many years ago, delivered 14 children, half of whom died. We also learn that Rose was declared an unfit mother by the state, which took away her four kids following a fire in which one of her children was burned.
Pic differs from Lynch’s previous efforts, most of which (including TV’s “Twin Peaks”) were coming-of-age sagas about naive adolescents forced to face a dark reality. Here, narrative takes the p.o.v. of an ailing man who’s determined to see his dying brother after a 10-year separation that was the result, he says, of vanity and drinking. Alvin may be Lynch’s healthiest, most balanced character, a man who fully understands that “the worst part of aging is remembering your youth.”
Some of the encounters during the trip, which takes more than five weeks, are more interesting than others. An encounter with a young woman discloses that she is pregnant and running away from her family. Another meeting is with a furious, frantic woman who has a history of hitting deer during her daily commute. More resonant is a forced stop near the Iowa border, when Alvin’s vehicle needs repair and several locals mobilize their good will to help.
Bits and pieces about Alvin’s military experience in WWII and hard drinking after the war enrich his character, though the filmmakers don’t pretend to known him fully; this leaves plenty of room for interpretation by the viewer. At the same time, scripters and director ensure that all the characters are decent and positive. This is manifest in a wonderful vignette in which Alvin bargains with twin mechanics about the price for repairing his vehicle, and in a scene in which a priest ignores Alvin’s trespassing on his property and brings him a plate of hot food.
The film feels like Lynch’s nostalgic recollection of his own childhood in rural Montana. His portrait of the American Heartland is simple but not simplistic, unadorned but not naive. Unplanned pregnancy, broken families, traumatic effects of combat, solitude and aging are all featured in the text, but they are kept in the background.
Such a yarn would never work unless the lead actor hits all the right notes, and the immensely charismatic Farnsworth surely does. It’s impossible to imagine the film without him; his soft voice, deep blue eyes and effortlessly manly stature embody the qualities of the good American father figure/buddy.
Working with some of his former collaborators, Lynch has made a film in which visual style and thematic concerns are entirely congruent. Lenser Francis’ gorgeous long shots of the Iowa cornfields, the Mississippi river and Wisconsin roads, juxtaposed with close-ups of Farnsworth’s expressive face, and Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative music, make for a radiantly pure film.