Overview: A coming-of-age tale set in rural Appalachia about a rebellious young man dealing with the haunted past of his home and attempting to create for himself a better future. Milenium Entertainment; 2015; Rated R; 119 minutes.
Landscape is Destiny: In his introduction to The Stories of Breece D’j Pancake, James Alan McPherson wrote the following in description of Pancake’s home region:
And eyes, in that region, are trained to look either up or down: from the hollows up toward the sky or from the encircling hills down into the hollows. Horizontal vision, in that area, is rare. The sky there is circumscribed by insistent hillsides thrusting upward. It is an environment crafted by nature for the dreamer and for the resigned.
This is the Appalachia in which The World Made Straight exists. Where landscape and time both fold inward like a loosely sealed envelope. Residents of this locale are taught by their surroundings to apply non-linear gazes, both spatially and chronologically. Everyone here is contained within their geography and history. Director David Burris shows skill in his pursuit of the land, in establishing the rural-ness of these characters by juxtaposing them against shots of hills, flora, and streams. He and Screenwriter Shane Danielsen have worked to adapt the novel of the same name from Ron Rash. Rash is a poet and writer who writes with an intimate familiarity with these hills and hollows and their people. Even when the film’s construction struggles, Rash’s leftover sincerity carries the audience’s attention through to the end.
Violence doesn’t stop. It’s like a sickness: There is a dreamlike sense to the way Burris weaves together the contemporary with the historical, and it builds a comfortable blanket in which to wrap the central characters, Leonard (Noah Wyle) and Travis (Jeremy Ervine). Wyle’s hopelessness and Ervine’s desperate dream of escape are the most compelling elements of the storyline. Their weighted, developing relationship, a friendship that moves into a makeshift paternal positioning and serves as a comfortable central tale, is plenty engaging. However, the violence that surrounds and interrupts it is never inserted with the same certainty or filmmaking ease. These moments feel borrowed from another film of different intention.
There are times in which Burris is overzealous in putting forth the tellers of his rural, impoverished geography. The accents and dialects of the actors and the accompanying musical score stumble too freely between sincere artifacts and dishonest novelty. But again, in the end, the residual influence of Rash’s familiarity with the region are enough to keep it from falling into exploitative. Because of the title of the film and basic narrative arc, the film’s final act of redemptive self-sacrifice is a bit predictable, yet the conclusion is earned and effective, the only sort of conclusion that characters like these deserve from their story.
Overall: While a bit heavy-handed with its regionalism, The World Made Straight is a successful story that leans on the universal values of friendship and redemption.