A seasoned actor can be the perfect wild card for a first-time director but only if he or she fits the role. For example, look at the collaboration between Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon. The duo first worked together on Nichols’ debut feature, Shotgun Stories, set in southeastern Arkansas (Nichols grew up there), and they reunited for both Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012). What fueled Nichols’ first two incredible tales was the charisma of Michael Shannon.
After watching Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, I genuinely believed that Shannon might have grown up in Arkansas, and he did, in fact, grow up in nearby Lexington, Kentucky. With all due respect to the accomplished Noah Wyle, I didn’t buy his country growl in The World Made Straight, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that he grew up in Los Angeles. What the North Carolina director David Burris needed for his North Carolina adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel was…a North Carolina actor.
Jeremy Irvine (an English actor) stars as Travis, who attempts to distribute somebody else’s weed and finds himself sailing up shit’s creek. After being warned by a local drug dealer (Steve Earle) and experiencing problems at home, he turns to a former teacher named Leonard (Noah Wyle), who likes to study both weed and civil war history. He also has a gorgeous live-in girlfriend/drug addict named Dena (Minka Kelly). On a land built on violence and family bonds, Travis discovers the truth about how the world really works.
It’s a bumpy ride through the first half of The World Made Straight, but the film makes a surprising turn for the better in the final act (and with each scene featuring Minka Kelly). I honestly wasn’t expecting to be moved by Kelly’s performance, but she managed to locate a country sorrow within herself as someone tossed around from grease ball to grease ball. Director Burris highlights Kelly’s physical form at the onset but allows her to grow as a character desperately seeking a way out.
Wyle and Irvine are just average as the two leads. Given their careers as professional actors, perhaps I’m not showing enough respect, but there’s an obvious disconnect from the source material. Wyle delivers an exaggerated growl like somebody on Hollywood Boulevard doing a country impression and Irvine does little to stand out. Are there men living in rural Appalachian communities who probably speak like Wyle’s character? Sure, and David Burris would know. But it doesn’t work for the film. Growing up in Fargo-Moorhead, a community often mocked for their accent, I can tell you there are people who genuinely speak Fargo and those who add a little something extra because the Coen Brothers told them to. Wyle digs a little too deep in The World Made Straight and it’s a distraction.
The dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. The World Made Straight is a film where the lead says “They say you shot some guy” and “I got no else place to go.” Should I go on?
A couple years ago Scott Cooper made a film about small town trouble with Out of the Furnace, and it was believable simply because Christian Bale and Casey Affleck had both the charisma and acting chops. The World Made Straight contains interesting subject matter, but it’s a poor man’s Out of the Furnace and not even close to what Jeff Nichols has done with his first three films.
Is it fair to compare? Maybe not, but The World Made Straight doesn’t offer enough to stand on its own without bringing up other films. For some reason, I think Michael Shannon would have spoke a little more convincingly as the lead character.