After the spiralling despair of his most recent films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway underperformers at the box office - David Lynch has evidently cheered up. The Straight Story, perfectly titled on several levels, is an exercise in strange sweetness that wouldnt have shamed John Ford at his most elegiac. Indeed, the film several times relies on that Fordian staple, a cowboy slowly crossing the horizon against a gorgeous sunset. The difference is that this cowboy has a somewhat more unusual steed than most.
Declaring itself to be based on a true story, the film follows the journey of geriatric Alvin Straight (Farnsworth), an ailing mid-Westerner whose eyes are too dim to qualify him for a driving licence and whose hips are giving him gyp. When he learns his estranged brother has suffered a stroke 500 miles away, Alvin decides its time to patch up a family feud and sets out to visit, attaching a cart of survival supplies to his sit-astride lawnmower. When the vehicle lets him down, he shoots it like a broken-legged horse, gets himself a tractor-mower and begins his quest proper.
This must be the slowest road movie ever made, which makes for a hilarious shot as cinematographer Freddie Francis pans up from the trundling Alvin to a magnificent sky and then pans down to show our hero has moved on only a few feet. Without shoving Waltons-like lessons down our throat, the film demonstrates that Alvin brings out the best in the people he meets. Earlier Lynch small towns, like Twin Peaks and the Lumberton of Blue Velvet, harbour psychopaths and monsters, but everyone along Alvins route from Ioway to Mississippi is as bedrock decent as he is, instinctively understanding the importance of his apparently absurd trip.
Richard Farnsworth has been a stuntman/bit player for decades, falling off horses and taking arrows in the back in dozens of blink-and-youll-miss-him Westerns. Finally given a starring role in The Grey Fox over 15 years ago, he is still underrated even as a veteran, taking a few decent but hardly showstopping supporting roles (he was the Sheriff in 1990s Misery). Here, he finally gets to carry another film, doing an award-calibre job. That this isnt saccharine is almost entirely down to Farnsworths resigned, frail presence, which never turns into that feistiness Hollywood usually requires of old people.
Alvin constantly admits his life has not been perfect - at one point he shares a World War II anecdote that makes you think harder about his generation than all of Saving Private Ryan. We slowly gather he was once a wild drunk, but has grown out of his meanness - hence the need to make up that one last time with his brother and look at the stars. You probably wouldnt take this from anyone else, but Lynchs tribute to the human spirit in twilight leaves the likes of Driving Miss Daisy and Grumpy Old Men stranded on the verge while the mower moves inexorably on.