NEW YORK — Starting today, the biggest surprise of this year's Cannes film festival will be stirring up talk in theaters. David Lynch, known for ultraviolent movies like "Blue Velvet" and surreal TV fare like "Twin Peaks," has found still another way to give audiences a jolt of astonishment: He's made a G-rated picture for the Walt Disney Company, spinning a tale so kind and gentle that it makes his previous career seem like a brilliantly filmed nightmare from which he's finally awakened.
In short, "The Straight Story" is a major turnaround from a filmmaker who has earned international acclaim as a chronicler of dark, disturbing dreams. But has this hugely original artist really changed course as abruptly as it appears? Or has he simply found a new vocabulary to express his longtime taste for extremes - directing a picture that's radically sweet, daringly goodhearted, humane, and compassionate to the point of extravagance?
Based on real events, "The Straight Story" centers on an ornery old man named Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth in a performance that should loom very large when Oscar time rolls around. Alvin lives with his daughter in rural Iowa, where their uneventful routine is interrupted by news that his brother, Lyle, has become ill.
The brothers haven't spoken since a quarrel 10 years earlier, and Alvin feels a flood of regret when he hears of Lyle's misfortune. His first impulse is to pay Lyle an overdue visit. While Alvin is no longer able to drive a car, he wants to make the trip on his own. The solution: Hitching a supply wagon to the tractor of his rider-style lawnmower, he sets off for his brother's Wisconsin home at a speed so slow that the 300-mile-plus journey will take several weeks of solitary travel - if the aging engine manages to get him there at all.
The speed of Alvin's lawnmower sets the tone for the movie. In some ways, this is the flip side of Lynch's last picture, "Lost Highway," which was as fast and hallucinatory as "The Straight Story" is slow and lucid. Don't think the movie lacks humor or drama, though. Alvin's gradual voyage brings him into temporary contact with all sorts of people, most of them amazed at the audacity of his journey yet eager to help him reach the finish line. Few films have been more eloquent about the kindness of strangers and the redeeming power we tap into when we recognize our shared humanity.
Lynch has often said he turned to the shadowy side of moviemaking - starting with "Eraserhead," his boldly inventive debut film - because of the shock he experienced as a young man when he moved to an East Coast city and learned that life seems to have an evil side he'd never dreamed of during his Midwestern upbringing. Seen in this light, "The Straight Story" isn't so much a new departure for Lynch as a long-awaited return to the peaceful, easygoing territory that has always lain beneath the surface of his gloomier visions.
It's also important to note that "The Straight Story" has a dark side of its own, contradicting some critics who claim it views the world through a sappy, rose-colored lens. Alvin is an adorable figure in many ways, but he's also a deeply stubborn man whose self-willed insistence on doing things his way - why doesn't he simply take a bus or train? - could sabotage the whole purpose of his journey if Lyle doesn't survive until he arrives. Lynch has long regarded human ego as a stumbling block to intuition and creativity, so this aspect of the film bears thinking about.
The movie's view of family values is also remarkably complex. We hear a lot about the importance of family life, but we never see an intact family on the screen, and the dialogue paints a subtly disturbing picture of the gap between rhetoric and reality in this all-important area.
Although it's largely a one-character show, "The Straight Story" benefits from strong performances by Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, artful cinematography by the great Freddie Francis ("Glory," the 1991 version of "Cape Fear"), and sometimes overdone music by Angelo Badalamenti, whose "Twin Peaks" theme was almost a national anthem a few years ago.
*Rated G; contains illness and some material that might not be suitable for very young children.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society