By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
Based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Pendleton, the film version of The Iron Orchard has had a long and arduous journey to reach the big screen. After several decades and multiple failed attempts at production, the morality yarn about Texas oil has finally made it to cinema. This time, independent Austin filmmakers utilized their scant resources and received the much needed help to see it to fruition. There is a bit of satisfaction to be felt by the filmmakers and audiences alike to see “a little film that could,” overcome obstacles to reach masses. Though the movie itself does leave some things to be desired, I applaud the writers, producers, director, cast and crew for creating a decent motion picture that many others before them couldn’t get off the ground.
Much like other rags to riches stories, The Iron Orchard tells a story of wild-haired ambition. Such is the tale of Jim McNeeley (Lane Garrison), a hungry Texas nobody who wants to prove everyone who has doubled him wrong. After failing to win the respect and affection of his girlfriend’s parents, Jim decides to pursue wealth in the oil business. Unfortunately this means breaking his back and wearing out his muscles working as a low totem rough neck. Even though he suffers through a very difficult start, Jim eventually starts his own business and becomes a huge success. Now with his lovely wife Lee (Ali Corbin) his side, Jim feels like he could take on the world. However, his ambitions turn to obsessive greed and Jim eventually discovers that these trappings will be his undoing.
Adapted by Gerry Deleon and Ty Roberts, and directed by Roberts, this movie version starts off swimmingly, but seems to fall into the usual cliches of greed parables. It is a somewhat transparent and obvious journey, but the movie does have its exciting, compelling, and entertaining moments. The film also suffers from some heavy-handed melodrama that occasionally made me groan a little in my seat. Still, given the minimal resources and financing for the movie, I was rather impressed with production design and tge gorgeous cinematography by Mathieu Plainfosse.
I was also mostly impressed with the performances by the cast. Lane Garrison shines brightly as lead character Jim McNeeley, a character whose arc ranges from determined nobody to a bitter and greedy mess. Ali Corbin gives a delightfully amiable turn as Jim’s pragmatic, but lovably charming wife Lee. Austin Nichols exudes much charisma as Dent Paxton, Jim’s longtime friend and business partner. The movie also features great work by Hassie Harrison, Lew Temple, Allan McLeod, and Temple Baker.
Though the film has its weaknesses, I will give it a moderate recommendation for people interested in supporting a Texas independent film. The beautiful cinematography should be experienced on the a big screen and there are worse movies on which people often waste their money. The Iron Orchard may not be a masterpiece or new classic, but it’s a pretty good film that indie filmmakers made out of love for their art and craft, and for the love of their source material.