The Prohibition-era Smoky Mountains hid whiskey stills. Now they hide crops of skunkweed, guarded by bear traps. Moonshine’s out, marijuana’s in—give the people what they want. Nothing changes in the hollows.
In Appalachia USA, the Civil War burned out long ago, but certain pockets of the region are still smoking with resentment. Why? Because “landscape is destiny,” says the voiceover, early in the haunting but slow-moving and ultimately tedious indie film “The World Made Straight.”
It’s the 1970s, in North Carolina hill country. High school dropout Travis Shelton (Jeremy Irvine) works at the local supermarket. He gives away merchandise to old folks with no money, and quits when the manager lectures him about it.
A hundred years before, right down the road near the creek in fact, the Candler family militia executed a child-soldier from the Shelton family—blasted his little spectacles off. Time buried his glasses in the grass, but the deed still festers in the present day.
Anyway, Travis’s dad hears about the supermarket situation, hollers some emasculating shame, and away Travis goes. Survival time. He chops a big marijuana plant out of a local drug dealer’s “sea of green.” Sells it for 50 bucks to another dealer.
This second dealer, Winchester-toting Leonard (Noah Wyle), is a former schoolteacher whose trailer hides interesting stuff: an 1859 diary, and a stunner of a “girlfriend” in the bedroom. Stunning, that is, until she puts in her false teeth. Travis and Leonard have a meeting of the minds, of sorts. They share similar interests in history.
So back young Travis goes (after more face-slapping humiliation from dad) to filch another filament of Kind Bud. But soon he’s passed out from the pain of bear-trap jaws biting through his leather boot. Courtesy of ruthless top-dog grower-dealer Carlton (Steve Earle), a black-bearded bad dude with a meaner sidekick (Marcus Hester) whose pot field Travis looted.
They put Travis in their El Camino, dump him in front of a hospital, and burn rubber.
After healing up, Travis, with no place to go, starts rooming with Leonard and his rent-a-girlfriend Dena (Minka Kelly). A mentoring begins. Travis learns local history. And eludes Dena’s advances. Dena’s bored of Leonard, finds him pathetic.
They explore fields and streams with a metal detector and, surprise, surprise, finally dig up little David Shelton’s glasses. They feel haunted.
It all boils down to a final showdown with Travis’s dad, who refuses to congratulate his son, who (thanks to Leonard) is now possessed of a GED. He informs Travis that Leonard is a Candler. As he puts it, “Candlers killed off half your family, look it up, seeing as now you’re the scholar in the family.” Which sets a fire under Travis to finally break the mold and not have history repeat itself.
Noah Wyle’s Leonard is not bad, but this is not Wyle’s forte; he’s too mild-mannered and his Southern twang is scarce. Better casting would have been John Hawkes, doing a variation on the scary Tennessee cokehead he played in “Winter’s Bone.”
Turns out, Minka Kelly (mostly known as NY Yankee Derek Jeter’s girlfriend) is slightly a Jennifer Lopez lookalike. She portrays an ungrateful, bored Appalachian slattern well—that type of haunting backwoods beauty who, minus the resourcefulness to escape the hollows, is headed for various tragedies. But in the end, Kelly’s ripped abdominals scream “actress!”
All in all, one never comes to care for any of the characters. Travis is too angry, Leonard too whipped, Dena too repulsive. The only really interesting character is Carlton, who, it turns out, has a singing talent and surreptitiously reads newspapers at home. He’s complicated. He could’ve escaped his destiny.
And yet: “Landscape is destiny.” The claustrophobic terrain causes its inhabitants to dwell in the past. The stagnant heat of the mono-seasonal Deep South produces the same effect. As do the vestiges of the intensely territorial sheep-herding culture of the Scots-Irish diaspora that settled in Appalachia. What else keeps this area down?
“Rednecks and drugs—one of the worst hookups of the ’60s,” says Leonard early on.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the “War on Poverty,” it was after viewing the state of the inbred Southern Appalachian mountain communities. The Prohibition whiskey didn’t help then, and the drugs aren’t helping now.
The Civil War was largely about the South not wanting give up its slaves. Southern Appalachia won’t give up its drug income. The slaves are gone with the wind. When the drugs are gone too—that would indeed be a world made straight.
‘The World Made Straight’
Director: David Burris
Starring: Noah Wyle, Jeremy Irvine, Haley Joel Osment, Minka Kelly, Steve Earle
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Release date: Jan. 9, 2015
2.5 stars out of 5