David Lynch’s masterpiece is Blue Velvet, but the film produces near physical discomfort, much like Darren Aronofsky pictures, so it serves as a poor exemplar of his work. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Lynch’s Mullholland Drive vied to be one of the finest first halves of a film ever made. Then, inevitably, it became laughably obtuse and the whole thing unraveled.
That was in 2001 and since then, it’s been all shorts and documentaries for Lynch. But before Mullholland Drive, Lynch directed his strongest film, a simple story about Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) who takes his ride-on lawn mower to visit his dying brother (Straight’s eyes are poor and he cannot drive a car) in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. The trip is 300 miles.
Lynch’s film is a testament to the small town communities of the Midwest. Straight encounters nothing but kindness, empathy and assistance, none of it treacly or condescending or self-congratulatory. As nicely put by Roger Ebert, “Lynch’s film is a lyrical beauty, and I cannot remember a picture more true to regular folk.”
There is a scene where Straight shares a beer with a man (Wiley Harker) in a bar. They acknowledge their World War II service and then go to a place that evokes the horror they both encountered. The scene is deeply delivered and is one of the most profoundly moving exchanges I’ve ever seen on film.
Farnsworth was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. Sadly, he was suffering from terminal bone cancer during the shooting of this film and he took his own life a year later at his ranch in New Mexico. He could not have chosen a better epitaph than this film.