Monday, January 05, 2015

The World Made Straight: To Live and Die in Appalachia

The very thought his ancestors might have been Unionists during the Civil War is almost too much for a rural white slacker like Travis Shelton to process. Yet, he slowly comes to learn family and land holdings (or lack thereof) had as much to do with one’s wartime alignment as geography for 1860s Appalachian citizens. In fact, he becomes preoccupied with a notorious Confederate massacre of Union POWs while getting ensnared in a contemporary feud during the course of David Burris’s The World Made Straight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Shelton’s prospects are limited, so when he stumbles onto a secluded marijuana grove in the backwoods, he foolishly decides to start harvesting it himself. He manages to sell one uprooted shrub to Leonard Shuler, a disgraced former school teacher who now deals dope for Carlton Toomey, the plant’s “rightful” owner. Despite Shuler’s warnings, Shelton pushes his luck, blundering into the bear-trap laid out for him.

To avoid trouble, Toomey spares Shelton’s life, but a cold war soon develops between them. Moving in with Shuler, Shelton becomes something of his student, learning the tragic local Civil War history, as well as the particulars of drug dealing. For a while, Shelton seems to reassert control over his life, but Shuler’s drug addled girlfriend Dena is a destabilizing wildcard, whom he knows will always betray him for a fix.

Despite all the guns and drugs, Straight offers a considerably more nuanced portrayal of the hardscrabble South than you typically see on film. It has a strong sense of the region and the 1970s era, forgiving most of its characters’ sins as products of their depressed economic circumstances and the depressing environment. It is also rather tricky to categorize, consisting of maybe three parts naturalistic drama and one part thriller. Regardless, it never feels exploitative, even when rather disturbing things happen on-screen.

After watching Noah Wylie mug through the Librarians series openers, it is nice to see he still has something like this in him. He is terrific as Shuler, convincingly balancing grit and nebbishness. Frankly, it is also somewhat remarkable how completely English actor Jeremy Irvine disappears into the role of Shelton. Since he is sometimes irresponsibly impulsive and other times passive, Shelton is a tough protag to get one’s arms around, but Irvine always comes across quite genuine, nonetheless. Still, he understandably wilts when confronted with the intense villainous force of Steve Earle’s Toomey. He conveys some frighteningly human dimensions to the hill country kingpin, who could have easily descended into caricature.

In fact, there are a number of cards screenwriter Shane Danielsen’s adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel might easily have overplayed, such as vaguely ghostly influence the historical massacre exerts on Shelton, but he maintains a balanced hand instead. As a result, it is a much better film than most viewers will expect. Recommended for those who appreciate dark Southern morality tales, The World Made Straight opens this Friday (1/9) in New York at the Quad Cinema.