David Lynch’s The Straight Story could, at a casual glance, be seen as the ultimate act of Lynchian perversity: a genially enraptured heartland-of-America fairy tale – released under the Disney banner and with a G rating, no less – that’s like a one-man-band version of ”The Odyssey” as daydreamed by Norman Rockwell.
Based on a true story, the movie is about a grizzled senior citizen from small-town Iowa, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who, in defiance of his broken-down body, makes a pilgrimage across the state line to visit his brother, from whom he has been estranged for 10 years. Since Alvin doesn’t possess a driver’s license (he has weak eyes and walks with a pair of canes), he purchases a 1966 John Deere lawn tractor, hitches it up to a wooden trailer full of supplies (mostly weiners for dinner), and drives it along the side of the highway at 5 miles per hour, meeting various Midwest eccentrics along the way and camping out in cornfields under the starlit sky.
Coming from the kinky surrealist visionary of ”Blue Velvet,” ”The Straight Story” is in some ways an all-too-conceptual change of pace, yet the weirdest thing about it is that it’s a Lynch movie in every frame. The images, the rhythms – they have his spooky meditative fullness. More than just an old man, Alvin Straight seems a figure from another eon, and the movie is rooted in the metaphysics of his past. It’s Lynch’s elegy for a pre-postmodern world where life was safe and whole.
At 79, the veteran actor Richard Farnsworth displays the same amiable, slow-talking courtliness he has had in movies like ”The Grey Fox,” but the haunting eloquence of his performance comes from his sad eyes, which burn with sweetness and pain. On the road, Alvin treats everyone he meets with a head-on sincerity that’s like a form of benediction.
As we learn, his cozy, comforting surface emerges from his acceptance of tragedy. He’s a man who lives with the lingering demons of war, of drink, of physical decay and familial rage. Yet Alvin, like the movie itself, keeps these demons at bay. He governs them rather than the other way around, and that’s his stubborn, homespun grace. ”The Straight Story” is Lynch’s first movie since ”Blue Velvet” that truly envelops you in its spell. It’s a piece of celestial Americana – his journey to the light side of the moon.