Do people in the Himalayas and Andes “live in the passive voice,” as those in Appalachia do? That loaded question comes early in The World Made Straight, an adaptation of the Ron Rash novel directed by David Burris.
That’s an intriguing question about life and fate, albeit one this film — about a chance discovery setting off an old vendetta — doesn’t fully see through. Burris envisions the region as one of carefully placed bear traps and Civil War ghosts; suffice to say that the wayward Travis (Jeremy Irvine) doesn’t know what he’s in for when he goes rifling through his family history. Relics of that conflict are literally embedded in the soil, so common that a cheap metal detector used as collateral in a low-level drug deal can sniff them out.
As the backwoods kingpin Carlton, Steve Earle delivers a performance of understated intensity — he’s the living embodiment of every Yankee’s down-home anxieties. Cerebral and outwardly calm, his is the kind of volatility everyone who knows him fears but few have been unfortunate enough to witness firsthand.
Still, too many of Burris’s ideas are channeled directly through the grief-stricken teacher (Noah Wyle) who accidentally provoked Carlton’s ire after taking Travis under his wing, relegating this potentially compelling mentor role to the delivery of thematic exposition. His on-the-nose monologues on the cyclical nature of centuries-old blood feuds ultimately feel more like stuffy lectures than living history; ditto the film as a whole.