Greetings again from the darkness. The Hatfields and McCoys family feud has long been a favorite topic and inspiration for literary and film projects. Lesser known, but ultimately more tragic and historically vital, is the 1863 Shelton Laurel Massacre during the Civil War. The novel from Ron Rash is the foundation of director David Burris’ film that explores the fallout of that incident more than 100 years later in the very rural Appalachian hills of Madison County, North Carolina.
It doesn’t take us long to get a line on Travis (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), a high school dropout with authority issues who hangs out with his equally aimless friends, including Shane (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense). We have seen many film depictions of hillbillies over the years, so the grim atmosphere of unemployment, isolation, lack of education, drugs and lack-of-hope aren’t surprising, and the undercurrent of the 1863 event is what should have set this one apart.
Interest picks up when teacher-turned-drug dealer Leonard (Noah Wyle) takes Travis under his wing after Travis has an unfortunate run-in with Carlton (Steve Earle), another local drug dealer. Travis moves in with Leonard and his drug-addicted girlfriend (Minka Kelly), and takes a real interest in the journals of Civil War soldiers that Leonard has collected. These stories spark a curiosity within Travis, in particular the saga of 13 year old David Shelton – one of the victims of the massacre.
It’s the fact that Travis is oblivious to the history of his family, and how this event has so affected life in his hometown, that makes this story difficult to buy into. In spite of the communication void between Travis and his father, it’s just not possible that the massacre would not have been a frequent topic of discussion throughout the years. Beyond that, this is little more than a typical small town battle between drug dealers … albeit two very articulate drug dealers. And yes, guns and turf do play a role here.
Jeremy Irvine, Noah Wyle and Steve Earle each make their characters someone interesting to watch. On the other hand, the female characters are mostly after-thoughts or plot devices. Travis’ mother maintains a forlorn look that registers her resignation to fate, while Minka Kelly mostly gets knocked around (save for one excellent scene while alone with Travis), and Adelaide Clemens provides the rare sparks of light and optimism as Travis’ love interest – and then just as quickly becomes a non-entity.
The fine acting and excellent camera work deserved a better story, especially given the framework of history. There is a recurring hillbilly philosophy in the movie that states “Time don’t pass. It’s just layers. It’s all still happening.” That philosophy could have better tied the current story into the past, which would have elevated this film to a new level.