David Lynch has left the deceptive, dangerous twists of "Twin Peaks" for the open, honest flatlands of "The Straight Story," a glowing, homily-filled homage to the down-home folks of the heartland. There's nothing but bullion-colored cornfields and good neighbors as far as the eye can see.
To say the very least, this G-rated Disney release is an unanticipated change of pace for Lynch, the perversity-prone surrealist of 1986's "Blue Velvet" and 1996's "Lost Highway." Folks out there in Iowa have their peculiarities, that's for dang sure. But then nobody's hiding a severed ear under his cowboy hat either--just unkempt hair, country-bred common sense and, in the case of 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), lots and lots of memories.
Based on a true story, the film offers an abridged version of Alvin's pensive 300-mile journey across Iowa to visit his estranged brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who has suffered a stroke on his farm near Mount Zion, Wis. Although they were once as close as two brothers could be, the men haven't spoken for more than a decade, and Alvin becomes determined to make amends.
The trouble is, Alvin can't see well enough to have a driver's license. The bus doesn't go there, and he's too proud to accept a ride. Walking is out of the question for a heavy cigar-smoker who suffers from emphysema and can barely stand without the help of two canes. His only means of transportation turns out to be a cranky 1966 John Deere riding mower.
With a little money in his pocket and a supply of wieners in tow, Alvin climbs aboard his mower and begins his five-week journey toward Mount Zion accompanied by the gradual coloring of autumn leaves. Shaken by 18-wheelers and left standing still by a bicycle marathon, Alvin patiently rolls along the shoulder of the road toward his goal. The mower's top speed of 5 mph is reflected in Lynch's pacing, as leisurely as a Sunday ride in the Packard with Mom and Dad.
Alvin bumps into sundry characters on his way to reconciliation--a runaway teenager, a fellow World War II veteran and a compassionate John Deere dealer--but the rolling landscape dotted with soft-gray barns and tended by dusty harvesters is Farnsworth's true co-star. When you're riding on a lawn mower, there's time to soak up the scenery along with the sunsets and starry nights beside the campfire, all rapturously captured by Freddie Francis's cinematography.
Though writers John Roach and Mary Sweeney have missed some obvious opportunities to enliven the story and some of their dialogue is a little too folksy-wolksy, Farnsworth, a stuntman turned character actor, ably handles even the corniest sentiment. He knows how to disguise the sappiest anecdotes in wreaths of exhaled cigar smoke.
Nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in "Comes a Horseman," Farnsworth also portrayed an elderly gentlemen train robber in "The Grey Fox," an artsy western that shares this one's nostalgia for a time gone by. And the actor, now 79, plays this tough old bird with the same kindness, integrity and grace he brought to the impish Fox. Alvin is a tad too creaky for imphood, yet there's still a hint of mischief in those turquoise eyes.
"The Straight Story" paints an unabashedly sentimental portrait of the Midwest, yet nevertheless bears Lynch's fingerprints: the visual poetry in a sky full of clouds that never seem to move no matter how far Alvin travels, or the unexpected humor in the oft-reiterated notion, "Wisconsin. Now, I hear that's a real party state."
The Straight Story (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.
CAPTION: Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) can't see well enough to drive but doesn't let that keep him from visiting his estranged brother.
CAPTION: Sissy Spacek in "The Straight Story."