Rural Appalachia is its own insulated world. Everybody has pickup trucks, which is about the only modern concession. People live pretty much as they did 100 years ago and 100 years before that: own some property, grow some crops, eat what you need and sell what you can. Education doesn’t count for much. It matters what clan you come from and you’re always identified by your kinfolk. Hunting and fishing are what people do. And they’ve been around guns all their lives.
Leonard (Noah Wyle) was smart enough to go off to college and become a schoolteacher somewhere else, but something happened that made his life go off the rails. Something about getting caught with drugs at the school. So now he lives in a trailer in the woods, a small-time dope dealer, answering his door with a shotgun in his hand. Inside, though, are all his books, including family diaries from the Civil War. Yes, the War Between the States came to visit this remote part of the North Carolina backwoods, though there weren’t any huge battles fought here. There were some casualties, but it was more about extensions of family blood feuds. And for some people who can’t look away, the old times there were not forgotten.
Travis (Jeremy Irvine) learns one of his Civil War kinfolk, a 12-year-old boy, was shot by the creek for “Union sympathizing” and goes to find the boy’s glasses with a metal detector. He also thinks he feels the blood crying up to him from the ground (Genesis 4:10). Travis is an impetuous lad who didn’t finish school “because it didn’t interest him,” and was fired from his store clerk’s job for giving a cup of coffee to an old man who didn’t have enough money for one. Travis can’t get along with his angry, disciplinarian dad, so he winds up staying with Leonard, who not only encourages his interest in reading, but also urges him to study for his GED and consider getting out of there and going to college. Travis has a couple of good-ol’-boy-buddies, but they usually get him drinking and generally misbehaving, which he can do well enough on his own.
There’s a subplot about Leonard also trying to rescue a pretty girl who’s uses drugs, but she complains that whenever he’s with her he’s still thinking about his wife (which he doesn’t even bother to deny). Leonard’s drug suppliers, not surprisingly, are a couple of local toughs who depend on intimidation to conduct their business, so they’re not exactly paragons of virtue, either.
In fact, there’s just not much here that’s appealing, which is the biggest problem of the movie itself. It’s all kind of sad, as if doomed to hopeless melancholy. Despite the beautiful pristine surroundings, the people are struggling to find any kind of beauty in their lives and are almost predestined to fail.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.