"This is a true story" -- that's what always gets to us, doesn't it? That little announcement attached to something as hopelessly artificial as a film, which dangles before us the promise of realism and familiarity.
"This is a true story." In other words, the formidable notion that there are men and women out there whose lives are less inconsequential, less obedient. They're a strange lot. They're the dreamers who do, the idealists who accomplish, the mild-mannered who rebel, the forgiven. Sure, we think them mad as they tilt at windmills we've always pretended not to see. Mad, naive, sweet in their own deranged way. But the truth is they're the ones we envy because their sense of adventure hasn't withered.
Alvin Straight is such a man. At 73, when he gets the news about his brother's stroke, he climbs on his lawnmower -- a '66 John Deere -- and travels from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wis., to put an end to 10 years of angry silence. "My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met. ... And this trip is a hard swallow for me. I just hope I'm not too late."
Why a lawnmower? Because Alvin's sight is poor. Because he needs two canes to move about. Because he outstubborns anyone willing to help. Because this is something he has to do alone. Is there a more American story than this? Call him Ahab. He's the long-lost cousin of "The Old Man and the Sea."
Seventy-nine-year-old Richard Farnsworth ("The Grey Fox") was born to play this part. The camera loves his face and surveys it closely, as it would a landscape of old age and understanding. The film moves slowly, devoted to the cautious rhythm of its main character, in awe of his unassuming presence, ready to accommodate his every whim. David Lynch's reality -- the bowels of those deep-breathing buildings, the dangerous night skies, the strangely luminous corn fields -- suits Farnsworth well. Actor and director understand each other completely, and it is this unlikely relationship that makes "The Straight Story" a triumph.
So maybe what we've suspected all along is true. Maybe only those capable of creating true monsters -- grotesque criminals with a blue-velvet obsession or horny little highway devils -- are capable of bringing to life characters of such extraordinary humanity.