The ’70s-era, North Carolina setting is the freshest element of David Burris‘ screen adaptation of Ron Rash‘s 2006 novel about modern-day Appalachians still affected by the emotional repercussions of the Civil War. Starring Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) as a troubled 17-year-old dropout who becomes involved with two drug dealers embroiled in an ultimately bloody feud, The World Made Straight has atmosphere to spare even if it eventually succumbs to stating its portentous themes a little too baldly.
Fired from his grocery store job after committing the sin of giving some food to an elderly homeless man, Travis (Irvine) is taken under the wing of Leonard (Noah Wyle), a former high school teacher living in a trailer with his white trash, drug-addicted girlfriend Dena (Minka Kelly). Having lost his job and his wife and young daughter as a result of an incident revealed in a flashback, Leonard now gets by as a low-level pot dealer, albeit one who reads serious literature and spends his spare time looking for Civil War artifacts with a metal detector.
Travis makes the mistake of pilfering a marijuana plant that turns out to belong to Leonard’s drug dealing rival Carlton (Steve Earle), whose low-key, folksy demeanor barely masks his sociopathic tendencies. As Travis wrestles with the ramifications of a horrific, true-life Civil War incident involving his “kin,” known as the Shelton Laurel Massacre, he finds himself caught up in the increasingly tense interactions between the two men.
Awash in predictable elements — after being injured by a bear trap on Carlton’s property, Travis strikes up a romantic relationship with an innocent young nurse (Adelaide Clemens) whose character is never developed beyond the level of generic love interest — the film suffers from its overly literal attempts to connect the present with the past. The heavy-handed dialogue and occasional flashbacks that might have been more effective in literary form serve only to further bog down the lugubriously paced, overlong proceedings.
The film’s saving grace is its fine performances, with Irvine highly effective as the morally confused teen and Wyle investing his portrayal with a world-weary dignity that makes his character endlessly intriguing. Even better is Earle, who at one point gets to showcase his singing abilities with a powerful if rather extraneous rendition of the classic folk song “The Wayfaring Stranger.” His soft-spoken Carlton is a truly chilling creation made all the more scary by the actor’s terrific, understated turn.
Production: Bifrost Pictures, Dreambridge Films
Cast: Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine, Minka Kelly, Haley Joel Osment, Adelaide Clemens, Steve Earle
Director: David Burris
Screenwriter: Shane Danielsen
Producers: David Burris, Todd J. Labarowski, Michael Wrenn
Executive producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, Kirk D’Amico, Katie Mustard, Daniel Wagner
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Editor: Mako Kamitsuma
Costume designer: Sarah Mae Burton
Casting: Craig Fincannon, Lisa Mae Fincannon, John Papsidera
Rated R, 119 minutes