Equipped with Appalachian scenery, a Southern drawl and a few cigarettes, director David Burris builds layers of narratives amid a rural backdrop in “The World Made Straight.” While the 1970s in America were a time characterized by progressive change and social advancement, the film — adapted from the novel of the same name by Ron Rash — instead focuses its lens on the isolation and destitution of a town in North Carolina cursed by stagnancy and haunted by past horrors of the Civil War.
Initially, Burris paints an almost picturesque South, familiarized with country music, a rusted pickup truck and trailer homes. But as it progresses, the film fulfills more than simple aesthetic conventions and places more weight on important stories, exploring moral growth and the human condition.
The main protagonist is young and troubled Travis Shelton (Jeremy Irvine), who seems to be at odds with all forms of authority. Misunderstood, Travis has a hostile relationship with his father, who chastises him for his lack of responsibility. For instance, when Travis quits his menial job at a grocery store after his boss scolds him for giving free food to an elderly man, his father misinterprets the decision as one of incompetence.
Though the film takes considerable effort to portray Travis as harmlessly ignorant and naive — he is a high school dropout and, in the first few scenes, sports a Confederate flag on his T-shirt — he is shown to be well intended and kind. Irvine, known for his breakout role in the critically acclaimed movie “War Horse” in 2011, proves his dynamic ability to play a wide range of characters with his convincing accent and effortless gait.
Deprived of a father figure and kicked out from his home, Travis becomes involved in the life of a former schoolteacher turned drug dealer, Leonard Schuler (Noah Wyle, “ER”), who fulfills the role of guardian and mentor. While Leonard’s casting into the “brooding, multifaceted anti-hero” mold could have easily been annoyingly forced, Wyle performs with grace and subtlety, carrying the film and even saving it at some moments.
The film’s narrative is interrupted by brief scenes of a historical massacre and individual character flashbacks, which serve to construct a main theme in the film: the past and its effects on the present. Travis tries to reconcile himself with his ancestral history — the murder of his kin during the Civil War — by reading old 19th century journals. Meanwhile, Leonard slowly confronts the phantoms of his personal past: his fallen teaching career after being falsely implicated with marijuana, as well as his subsequent estranged relationships with his wife and daughter.
Leonard is also entangled in a relationship with a young and attractive drug addict, Dena (Minka Kelly), whose presence lands both Leonard and Travis in violent conflict with a local drug lord. As Dina spends the entirety of the film stuck in a cycle of self-destruction, exhausting the sexually promiscuous but emotionally vulnerable role, it is unfortunate the film does not lend its effective character dynamism to its women as much as it does to its male characters. This even applies to Travis’ love interest, Lori (Adelaide Clemens), who as the sweet “girl next door” seems to only exist for the shallow purpose of aiding Travis in his journey of self-growth and never stands as her own character.
While limited in perspective and slow-moving at times, “The World Made Straight” is both emotionally captivating and thoughtfully introspective. The film addresses the importance of both acknowledging and reconciling oneself to the truths of the past while not giving them power over decisions in the present. “Time don’t pass,” Travis declares in frustration at one point. “It’s just layers. It’s all still happening.”
Confronted by time and unyielding history, the characters all struggle with linearity — aligning past, present, and future. But although each character finds their way through the means of difficult confrontation, the film ends on an unsatisfying, almost hollow note of “What now?” Perhaps an intentional analogy to the isolating remnants of the Civil War, this leaves the audience with little more than room for reflection and cause for empathy.
‘The World Made Straight’ opens in the Bay Area on Jan. 9.
Contact Valerie Khau at [email protected].