CANNES ’99 REVIEW: The New David Lynch — Sentimental, Sweet, Gentle, and Touching
by Stephen Garrett
The ever bizarre and surprisingly inventive filmmaker David Lynch now delivers something downright shocking: his newest work, “The Straight Story” is just about the sweetest, gentlest, and most touching movie of his career. The first Cannes screening was accented with giggles and gaffaws at all the right moments and sincere silence during its more moving scenes, followed by strong applause at the end. Although still very much a Lynch production, the film’s downright conventional tone and style as well as its humble scope may mar any chances for major prizes, especially since Lynch took home the Palme d’Or less than a decade ago with 1990’s “Wild at Heart.” But a strong central performance by old-timer Richard Farnsworth takes its place alongside Bob Hoskins‘ turn in “Felicia’s Journey” as a contender for the best actor award.
Based on the real-life 1994 trip from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin in which 73-year old Alvin Straight traveled hundreds of miles over six weeks riding a 1966 John Deere lawn mower, “Straight” turns the unlikely adventure into a road movie like no other, one which makes Alvin (Farnsworth) leave behind his halting-speech daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) upon hearing that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a serious heart attack. Wanting to make amends with the brother to whom he hadn’t spoken in over ten years, and determined to make the trip alone despite poor vision, little money, and no car, Straight hooks up a huge trailer full of provisions like gasoline, camping gear, and lots and lots of Braunschweiger to eat, and hits the highway.
As in every worthwhile road movie (including Lynch’s inversely dark “Wild at Heart”), his journey is full of random meetings with strangers along the way, in this case a runaway pregnant teenager, a group of bicycle enthusiasts, a hysterical woman whose car has just hit its thirteenth deer in seven weeks, bickering twin mechanics, and a fellow army veteran like himself with whom he trades war stories. The generous though admittedly corn-fed wisdom Straight offers to the people on his route gives surprising stature and dignity to a character easily thought of as dottering and relentlessly stubborn. It also lends weight to Straight’s own relationship with his brother, as his encounters give him the opportunity to evaluate the meaning of family values, the regrets that come with old age, and the importance of forgiveness, all of which dovetail nicely at the end when the Straights finally reunite.
A movie like this raises questions about the surreal director’s comparatively radical artistic departure, and the answer may lie in Mary Sweeny, Lynch’s longtime editor and co-producer since 1985’s “Blue Velvet,” who earns her first screenwriting credit (with John Roach) with “Straight.” The film still carries Lynchian hallmarks of small town Americana tinged with satire, but this time the observations are relatively toothless and downright endearing rather than sarcastic or cruel. The disturbing violence and sick invention that defined “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart” are gone here, and in its place lies an almost treacley belief in the redeeming power of love. Some of the auteur’s fans may walk away scratching their heads at what is a G-rated adventure movie about a man going 10 miles an hour down a highway — but others open to the director’s new dramatic direction will discover possibly his most radical side: sentimental Lynch.