D: David Burris / 119m
Cast: Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine, Minka Kelly, Adelaide Clemens, Steve Earle, Marcus Hester, Haley Joel Osment, Alex Van, Robin Mullins
North Carolina, the early Seventies. Travis Shelton (Irvine) is seventeen and without much of a future ahead of him. He’s a high school dropout, can’t hold down a job, and spends most of his time hanging out with his friends. When he discovers some marijuana plants growing in back of a property in the woods, he takes a few and sells them to local small-time drug dealer, Leonard Shuler (Wyle). When he goes back to get some more he steps into a bear trap and passes out. When he comes to he finds himself confronted by Carlton Toomey (Earle) and his son Hubert (Hester), the owners of the marijuana plants and the area’s most prominent – and feared – drug dealers. Toomey strikes a bargain with Travis: in return for his silence about the plants, they’ll take him to the nearest hospital. Travis agrees.
While he recovers at the hospital Travis meets Lori (Clemens), a nurse he was in school with. They begin a tentative relationship that continues once he’s allowed home… which proves to be out of bounds, due to an argument Travis had with his father (Van) before his accident. With nowhere else to go, Travis persuades Leonard to let him stay with him for a while. His stay isn’t appreciated by Leonard’s girlfriend, Dena (Kelly), but he and Leonard form an unlikely friendship, with Leonard’s interest in local Civil War history, in particular the Shelton Laurel massacre, piquing Travis’s enthusiasm. As he delves deeper into what happened during the massacre he learns that several of his ancestors were killed there, including a thirteen year old called David Shelton.
He and Leonard visit the site and discover a pair of glasses that might have belonged to David. Dena becomes increasingly annoyed at Travis’s presence; one night while they’re all at a carnival, she disappears. Later on at Leonard’s she returns, accompanied by Toomey, to collect her things. Much later, Travis and two of his friends go to Toomey’s to score some drugs; there he discovers that Dena has been forced into letting men have sex with her to settle a debt Toomey says he owes her. Travis returns to free her, and he takes her to Leonard. Knowing that Toomey will come looking for her, he tells them to make a run for it. And sure enough, shortly after they leave, Toomey arrives looking for restitution.
The second screen adaptation of a novel by author Ron Rash in four months – the other being Serena (2014) – The World Made Straight is a meditation on the prolonged effects of the past on the present. It highlights the ways in which past events can influence the behaviour of people even a hundred years after they’ve happened, and emphasises the toll such an influence can have.
In Travis we have a main character who – surprisingly, given the nature of his Appalachian heritage – is unaware of the massacre and his family’s unfortunate involvement. But this is a journey of discovery, one that takes Travis away from his cloistered home life and into a world where he struggles even further to make any headway. His unexpected friendship with Leonard (who helps him pass his GED test) and his romance with Lori both point to a brighter future, but his increasing obsession with the massacre and his family’s history keeps holding him back, his need to know what happened there and why stopping him from moving forward. Irvine plays him with a swagger he hasn’t earned yet, and keeps Travis from becoming too irritating because of the mistakes he makes. It’s a rough and ready performance, in keeping with the character, and allows for a depth of feeling that pays off when Travis and Leonard visit the massacres site.
He’s not the only one haunted by the past, though. Leonard is a small-time drug dealer who was once a schoolteacher. He lost his job when a student he’d caught cheating on a test and failed, hid some drugs in his car. There’s an irony in his current “career path” and it’s not lost on him. His fascination with the past is seen as a by-product of this turn of events, as if by seeking answers to the events of the past he can find answers to his own predicament. Through Travis, Leonard is hoping to make some small amends for the way in which his life has taken a wrong turn, and for the way in which he let it happen. Wyle gives a quietly compelling performance, making Leonard’s sadness with his life all the more effective due to the losses he’s suffered. He has some difficult choices to make at the end, and while one of them seems designed more to provoke the eventual denouement, he still makes it work – just.
Sadly, while Travis and Leonard are characters given the room to live and breathe within the movie’s narrative, the same can’t be said for Dena and Lori. Dena’s drug addiction makes her manipulative and self-absorbed, almost a caricature, particularly when she attempts to seduce Travis. Lori is the wholesome alternative to Dena, her fresh-faced appearance and blonde locks the opposite of Dena’s sallow complexion and lifeless hair. Kelly struggles to make more of Dena than the script will allow, and Clemens is hamstrung by Lori’s less than consistent presence in the narrative (she’s a glimpse of what Travis could have, but little more). However, the movie does have one performance that is authoritative and commanding, and that’s provided by the singer Steve Earle, whose portrayal of Toomey is soft spoken, low-key and infinitely more menacing as a result.
Shane Danielsen’s script leaves some plot lines dangling – at one point, Dena tells Travis that Leonard is his kin even though he has a different name and family background – and just why Travis becomes so enthralled by the massacre and its connection to his family is never really explained (or explored). Also, the relationship between Leonard and Dena creates its own problem as it’s difficult to work out why he’d be with her. And the ending, while not entirely unexpected, is arrived at by a series of convoluted changes of character but remains surprisingly satisfying.
Making his feature debut, Burris directs things with one eye on the performances and one eye on the beautiful North Carolina countryside. Thanks to some stunning compositions, Burris and DoP Tim Orr make the movie a pleasure to watch, even if there’s an often wintry feel to the locations used, and there are several shots of a river that acts as a metaphor for the passage of time. It all makes the movie look more impressive than it is, but it’s not for want of trying. Burris has a good feel for the subject matter but can’t overcome the deficiencies in Danielsen’s script, and while the sense of history weighing down on the present is occasionally overdone, it doesn’t detract from the fact that, as debuts go, this is a pretty good start.
Rating: 7/10 – slow paced and not fully realised, The World Made Straight is still an auspicious debut from Burris, and lingers in the memory; worth seeing for Earle’s cobra-like performance and an atmosphere that builds to a conclusion that is both febrile and understated.