Movie Review: “The Iron Orchard”

My hat always comes off in the presence of filmmakers daring enough to take on a period piece with their indie film.

They’re invariably passion projects with a capital “P.” Because you’re not cranking out some attention-grabbing/career-starting horror-zombie or romantic comedy quickie. If you’re making a movie on a tiny budget, and have to add-in Civil War uniforms and battle reenactments (“Field of Lost Shoes”) or vintage clothes, cars, settings and gear for a movie like “The Iron Orchard,” you’re committed. 

“Iron Orchard” is an unconventional, fictionalized tale of Texas oil’s peak “wildcatting” years — the 1920s through the 1950s. Enterprising gamblers with a thin stake, some gear and chancy leases on (mostly) West Texas land where no known oil reserves existed, risked all for a chance to strike it rich in “Black Gold,” “Texas Tea.”

It’s the subtext many a Texas/Oklahoma story (“Giant,” “Oklahoma Crude”) and there’s no reason to not tell another one.

But you’ve got to do a better job than this. It’s a duller “Dallas,” a diminutive “Giant,” an “Oklahoma Crude” that isn’t crude enough.

All these oil wells, all those cars and trucks dating from the 1930s to late ’50s, period costumes, etc. And in service of what? A murky, anachronistic “Dallas” soap opera that struggles to find someone — anyone — for the audience to identify with as it perfunctorily skips through time following the sorry saga of one Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison of “Camp X-Ray” and TV’s “Prison Break”). 

We meet him as he shows up in the Permian Basin in the late 1930s, a young man chased away by the parents of the well-to-do Mazie Wales (Hassie Harrison, who makes a fine blonde hussie) because he just didn’t have good enough prospects. At least they hooked him up with a job.

He begins work as a roughneck for Bison Oil in 1939. He is bullied, hazed and ridiculed from Day One.

Not that he isn’t warned. The guy bringing him in, Dent Paxton (Austin Nichols), has nothing but blunt warnings for him.

“My advice to you is run…go back to where you came from.” He is just “one of them college boys” whom the other roughnecks will “run off in the week..”

“All hopes are illusions are blasted to pieces out here”

But McNeely won’t be dissauded. The greater part of the film is him being beaten, forced to do backbreaking labor (ditch digging, laying pipe, wrestling with heavy oil pumping valves) and finally fighting back enough to retrieve a little dignity.

The locals curse him (several sound like profane versions of characters from TV’s “King of the Hill”) and call him “Boll Weevil” (as in “useless insect” and a blight on their lives) at every chance they get. There’s a nephew (Temple Baker) of the company owner who shirks work, and a brute of a crew leader (Gregory Kelly) who must be faced down with fists. 

This is smelly, dirty authentic-feeling male bonding and is the best thing in the movie. 

Flashbacks to days with the comely blonde Mazie remind him of his goals — save money, get “into” the business, win back Mazie.

Then he lays eyes on an engineer’s unhappy wife, played by Ali Cobrin of “Neighbors” and “American Reunion” and “Lap Dance.” She’s miserable to the point of self-destructive, and given to offering rides to McNeely.

“You’d better get out here. You know how people talk.”

He thinks nothing of making his move on the married woman, and the film perfunctorily leaps into their happy lives together, Jim spending his stake money on wildcat leases, taking the risks and seeing them pay off, thanks to inside tips from a geologist-friend (Allan McLeod) and his own folksy charm. 

But the “hero’s journey” wouldn’t be complete without him ruining his own success, over-reaching, drinking, inviting Mazie back into his life.

Director and co-screenwriter Ty Roberts has ties to Midland oil folk, and got financing from others in West Texas oil for the film. The 1966 novel this is based on is a roman a clef Texas Van Zandt family history, according to the son of the novelist, character actor Ned Van Zandt (who plays a Van Zandt in the movie).

 Which is all well and good.

But “The Iron Orchard” — a vividly poetic titular image of a field of derricks, I have to say — lacks such fundmentals as a dynamic of conflict. McNeely drifts from hero to villain, with no other character save for the wife he lured away from her first husband, developed to an extent that she could be his foil.

Which she isn’t, even though the film desperately needs that balance — that conscience (Dent?) or outside person or force that pushes back against Dent’s ambition. 

Think of “Giant,” where Rock Hudson’s easy wealth is clashes with James Dean’s hunger and class resentment. 

Garrison is game enough at giving us the drive that young men of intelligence and limited means brought to such 1930s oil patch stories, but out of his depth at showing Jim’s rising arrogance, foolish indiscretions and financial desperation over the following decades. 

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Indie period pieces are always too “clean” — the classic cars and trucks, that in reality would be dirty, dented and beaten up from working lives in the wasteland of West Texas, are always spotless, down to their whitewalls. Only the language is soiled and worn, here. 

Songs turn up in the wrong decades (Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls,” recorded by Faron Young in 1960, shows up in 1948 or so) as the story advances by uninteresting spasmodic leaps.

The fact that author Tom Pendleton (Van Zandt) saw this tale “really happen” to his family doesn’t mean the story doesn’t need dramatic license to work. Because that’s why you’ve never heard of Tom Pendleton as a novelist.

I tipped my hat at the outset of this review at the effort all involved made here, and it stays off in respect for what Roberts et al were going for in this project that perked to life in 2011 and took until now to reach the screen.

But all those years, and you didn’t workshop the daylights out of this script, with others pointing out the holes? It plays like a TV mini series chopped to fit into a theatrical film, with a lot of “good stuff” and connections lost in the editing. 

All that money for music rights and Willie’s reps didn’t tell you “You shouldn’t have ‘Hello Walls’ playing during the (earlier) heyday of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys?”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, sexual situations, fist fights, deaths

Cast: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Hassie Harrison, Lew Temple

Credits: Directed by Ty Roberts, script by Gerry DeLeon and Ty Roberts, based on the  Tom Pendleton novel. A Santa Rita Films release.

Running time: 1:58

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