"Landscape is destiny," a character insists in "The World Made Straight." Attempting to prove it, director David Burris lards the Appalachian drama with images of woods and rivers as well as double-wide trailers and 4x4 trucks. A strong sense of place emerges, if not a consuming narrative, as the filmmaker strains to connect a 1970s coming-of-age story to historical records and bigger thematic arcs — namely, bloodlines and bloodshed in a rural community.
The movie finally feels more manufactured than organic, a travelogue of portent, complete with plangent guitars and peopled by characters from the backwoods playbook.
Jeremy Irvine ("War Horse") is Travis, a young man at loose ends who finds a surrogate father in former teacher Leonard. Played by Noah Wyle in gruff voice, his face a mask of self-loathing, Leonard deals drugs, his fall from grace laid out with awkward efficiency in flashbacks and dialogue. But he still has it in him to educate Travis, who sparks to Leonard's Civil War memorabilia and becomes obsessed with one of his own ancestors, a young boy who died in a legendary massacre of Union sympathizers.
The twinned protagonists serve as story engines even as the question of their individual fates fails to compel. Surrounding mentor and mentee are vivid yet familiar types, including Haley Joel Osment's party-hearty good ole boy and, at opposite ends of the innocence-experience spectrum, a hopeful candy striper (Adelaide Clemens, recalling Michelle Williams) and a sacrificial pill-addicted beauty (Minka Kelly).
Although the dialogue hits themes squarely on the head, Shane Danielsen's adaptation of a novel by Ron Rash is alive to regional vernacular. Musician Steve Earle, superb as the story's heavy, finds the menacing poetry in it. Especially good news: He gets to sing.
"The World Made Straight"
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, drug content, violence.
Running time: 1 hours, 59 minutes.