By J. Hoberman, Village Voice, October 15, 1999
with many thanks to Greg M.
A 73-year-old man who needs two canes to walk, and whose dimmed vision precludes driving a car, stubbornly pilots his 1966 John Deere lawn mower 240 miles (at 5 mph) across Iowa to visit an estranged brother in Wisconsin. Prince of weirdness David Lynch always was a closet cultural conservative, and his new movie, The Straight Story, is Disney material with a vengeance.
Dramatizing the true story of Alvin Straight, Lynch revels in a premise so shamelessly feel-good and absurdly family-friendly it might embarrass Steven Spielberg or Kevin Costner. The title is, of course, a pun. Lynch begins with a parody of Blue Velvet's small-town geekery. But, unlike that masterpiece of ecstatic creepiness, The Straight Story is not about what goes on behind closed doors. Everything is on the surface: "What's the number for 911!?" someone wants to know, quoting Homer Simpson without credit.
The Straight Story is as American in its wanderlust as Boys Don't Cry is in its paean to reinvention and Blair Witch is in its fear of the woods. Despite a few peculiar details (a biddy-filled tour bus, a scene underscored by the piercing squeal of a hacksaw cutting metal pipe, the repeated insistence that Wisconsin is a "real party state"), the movie is unpretentiously straightforward. Wrinkled within his wrinkles, Richard Farnsworth is enormously sympathetic in the title roleit's heart-stopping to watch the flicker of adrenaline-fueled panic crease his face as the lawn mower's brakes fail on a downhill grade. Sissy Spacek gives a pitch-perfect performance as his peculiarly disabled daughter.
Lynch treats this geriatric road movie as a biblical parablea tale from the Book of Dutch. As summer turns to fall, Alvin encounters a pregnant runaway, a hysterical woman who claims to have run over 14 deer, a teenage bicycle tour, and a pair of squabbling twins. These opportunities for him to dispense his homely wisdom are overemphasized, replete with reverential reaction shots, even when they're meant to be funny. Lynch tips his hand when Alvin goes for a beer with another geezer and, with a '40s ballad playing prominently in the background, they swap references to their World War II traumas. Even so, thanks to the evident decrepitude of the actors, the scene has an old-western pathos.
Sunny as The Straight Story appears, Lynch is still defamiliarizing the normal. Perhaps the clearest indication that Straight lives in a paradise is the absence of authority figures. No cop appears to question his vehicle, and even though he spends an evening in a church graveyard, roasting wieners with a friendly priest, the concept of God is never mentioned.