Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Lew Temple and Austin Nichols in The Iron Orchard (Photo: Santa Rita Film)

★★½ (out of four)
STARS Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin

Texas born and bred, The Iron Orchard is an adaptation of the 1966 novel by oilman Edmund Van Zandt Jr., who wrote the sprawling tome under the nom de plume Tom Pendleton. At nearly 400 pages, the book clearly got shorn to fit into a 112-minute running time, but writer-director Ty Roberts (scripting with Gerry De Leon) has nevertheless constructed a film that intermittently impresses with its oversized intentions.

Indeed, it’s Roberts’ direction, coupled with Mathieu Plainfossé’s evocative cinematography, that belies the picture’s comparatively slender budget. The helmer does a commendable job of capturing the expansive nature of the story — and the state — as the plot (kicking off in 1939) repeatedly treks between big-city mansions and middle-of-nowhere dustlands. It begins in the former, as Fort Worth nobody Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison) is informed that he’s not good enough to marry blonde peach Mazie Wales (Hassie Harrison), and settles down in the latter, as Jim takes a job doing menial chores alongside rednecks in BF West Texas.

After a rocky start, Jim comes into his own rather nicely. He falls in love with Lee Montgomery (Ali Cobrin), the unhappy wife of one of the engineers; he lands a best friend in Dent Paxton (Austin Nichols), the only other educated man at his place of employment; and, eventually, he strikes out on his own and becomes a millionaire after finding oil. Alas, as in all cautionary tales, Jim becomes (as they doubtless say in West Texas) too big for his britches, choosing to ignore his loving wife and faithful friend in favor of shady business opportunities, copious amounts of alcohol, and another shot at the gold-digging Mazie.

Even if Roberts’ script isn’t as polished as his direction, it’s adequate enough for the early portions to overcome the acting by all concerned. Each individual performance is a cross between authentic and amateurish, and it’s often fascinating to watch this Jekyll-Hyde dichotomy. Garrison isn’t bad as Jim McNeely, although he lacks both the charisma and the intensity that the part requires, particularly in the story’s later passages. Faring better is Nichols, even if the progression of his role doesn’t really make sense — even considering subsequent circumstances, it’s hard to marry the cocksure scoundrel at the beginning with the wincing, broken man at the end, although Nichols’ commitment to the part never wavers (in fact, the movie might have worked better had he and Garrison switched roles). Among the rest, Cobrin is the most memorable as the well-meaning woman with rotten luck in husbands.

The final chapters feel rushed in comparison to the leisurely storytelling employed throughout much of the movie, and there’s disappointingly no audience catharsis as Jim basically get punished for his avaricious actions (some of which result in the deaths of others) with the equivalent of a 10-minute time-out in the corner. Still, Roberts deserves some credit for unearthing enough of interest in a familiar rags-to-riches saga — if he doesn’t exactly hit pay dirt, neither does he leave viewers completely empty-handed.

(The Iron Orchard is currently playing in select cities and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD August 6.)

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