"The Straight Story" starts out like any David Lynch film, with an aerial shot of a pretty little Midwestern town, its neat streets, tidy yards and picket fences barely belying the depravity, angst and sexual perversity that seethe underneath. Lynch's fans will brace themselves for the inevitable shock to come, but the real shock here is that the wholesome surface is exactly what it seems.
A radical goodness suffuses "The Straight Story," a populist belief in the quiet heroism of courtly decency so strong that you leave the theater stunned. In a way, "The Straight Story" is the most daring movie by Lynch, who has made a career examining the more slithery aspects of human nature in such movies as "Blue Velvet" and the TV series "Twin Peaks." With "Straight Story" he has actually made -- and convinced Hollywood to sell -- a movie about the very people it makes billions of dollars rejecting, disdaining and dismissing every day.
"The Straight Story" is the tale of Alvin Straight, who in 1994, at the age of 73, set out on his riding lawn mower to visit an estranged brother who had succumbed to a stroke. Starting out in Laurens, Iowa, Straight -- whose bad vision prevented him from driving a car and whose irascible independence prevented him from accepting a ride -- drove a 1966 John Deere with a trailer attached to Mount Zion, Wis. Alvin's 240-mile trip inevitably became a local cause celebre, and during his six-week journey he became something of a media darling.
But as its title suggests, "The Straight Story" is just that -- Alvin's trip unvarnished by wacky interludes, heroic arrivals or morality tales about fame and the media. Portrayed with grizzled dignity by Richard Farnsworth, Alvin doesn't labor under too much subtext. Aside from a bar stool confession about his years in World War II -- one of the movie's most affecting sequences -- Alvin stays pretty much Alvin throughout this elegantly simple movie.
That means that audiences get exactly what they're promised here: the story of a man who, upon hearing that his brother may be dying, simply packs up his lawn mower and sets out from his northern Iowa town for points east.
When the first mower punks out, he buys a used John Deere whose transmission is better suited to haul the jury-rigged trailer Alvin has packed with lawn chairs, Braunschweiger sausage, blankets and Swisher Sweets cigars. When Alvin, whose bad hips can almost be heard creaking every time he gets on and off the green machine, sets out this time, "The Straight Story" is off and running at a gripping 5 mph.
At first Lynch has gentle fun with the story's idiosyncratic pace, pointing his camera down to the creeping yellow center line of the road (a sly homage to the speedy version of the same image he used in "Lost Highway") and panning up from Alvin to the open sky and back again, only to find the tractor inches farther than where it had been.
But soon enough, the audience settles into the journey's own rhythm and tempo, and soon Alvin's world opens up. Like him, we revel quietly in an Iowa countryside during harvest season (filmed on location, "The Straight Story" has been splendidly photographed by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis), grow contemplative by the light of an evening fire and experience the sublime joy of savoring a Swisher Sweet under a barn roof during a sudden lightning storm.
Farnsworth doesn't have a lot of dialogue, and the lines he does speak have a wistful wisdom about them, spoken in a high-pitched cackle. He communicates much more through his face and body, both of which wear visibly through the movie, and both of which convey wordlessly the heroism of his character's journey.
Ostensibly, "The Straight Story" is about Alvin's effect on the people he meets on his odyssey across the Mississippi River, but watching his encounters -- with a young runaway, a group of bike racers, a fellow World War II veteran, a priest -- filmgoers may have an odd sensation of premonition.
In one of the movie's most eerily powerful scenes, Alvin enjoys his first beer in years in the company of two similarly elderly gentlemen. No one speaks. One of them scrapes something invisible off the bar. And you realize that this is something we've never seen in a Hollywood movie before. This is old age, not played for laughs or false sentimentality or glib wisdom. "The Straight Story" is an engaging yarn and a moving character study, but it's also a sweet, sad glimpse of everyone's future.
'The Straight Story'
Starring Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek
Directed by David Lynch
Running time 111 minutes
Released by Walt Disney Pictures
Sun score ***