The films of David Lynch have always been less about coherent narratives than about conjuring up bizarre universes. The director has consistently turned the American Dream on its head, revealing that behind the white-picket fences lies a world of unspeakable desires and brutal violence. And it's precisely this track record which makes The Straight Story such a radical departure for the film-maker.
Far from being Lynch's usual excursion into the darkness of twisted psyches, The Straight Story is in fact a warm-hearted tribute to the rural American heartland and its doughty inhabitants. Based on the true-life story of Alvin Straight's epic lawnmower ride to visit his ailing brother, this is a carefully paced road movie, but without the surreal deviations that characterised Lynch's Wild At Heart and Lost Highway. "There are a lot of weird people out there," somebody warns Alvin. And yet the various individuals he encounters on his travels prove decent and hospitable folk.
The film is anchored by Richard Farnsworth's masterfully understated and yet expressive performance. The septuagenarian actor captures both Alvin's stubbornness and his dignified loyalty to a certain code of behaviour, placing him in the venerable tradition of cowboy heroes. And Lynch and his screenwriters John Roach and Mary Sweeney neither patronise their characters for cheap laughs, nor conjure up a rose-tinted view of human existence. Life here involves untimely deaths, the physical indignities of ageing, and the pain of broken families and war-time traumas.
The Straight Story cries out to be seen at the cinema, not least because of Freddie Francis' majestic widescreen photography of the midwest landscape in its autumnal glory. Add in Angelo Badalamenti's emotive score and some dreamy editing, and you have one of this year's most satisfying American films.