The Iron Orchard
2019, R, 111 min. Directed by Ty Roberts. Starring Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols, Lane Garrison, Hassie Harrison, Lew Temple.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., March 1, 2019
In 1966, Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr. published The Iron Orchard, a lightly fictionalized tell-all book about the West Texas oil industry. The novel was hailed – and subsequently advertised – as one of the most faithful depictions of the Texas oil industry to date, inspiring legendary filmmakers like Paul Newman and Robert Redford to flirt with the idea of a big-screen adaptation. Now, more than 50 years later, it’s Midland-born filmmaker Ty Roberts who finally breathed life into this Texas original.
Starting in 1939, The Iron Orchard follows Jim McNeely (Garrison) on his meteoric rise from the fields of West Texas to the private clubs of Dallas. With no money and no family name to leverage, McNeely throws himself into the oil industry, forming friendships with lawyers, geologists, and drillers who can help him turn the right plot of land into a million-dollar investment. Drunk on his newfound power, McNeely soon turns on those who helped him climb to the top, including his wife and business partner, Lee Montgomery (Cobrin in a standout role), and his oldest friend, Dent Paxton (Nichols).
The heart of The Iron Orchard is its rags-to-riches-to-rags-again storyline. McNeely’s fall from grace comes when he passes on one particularly risky plot of land; we watch him drive out to the wilderness, kick up some dirt, and take the wrong side of a losing bet. This lapse in judgment puts McNeely on tilt, and everything that follows can, in one way or another, be traced back to the decisions of a man with a bruised ego.
This is a highly localized film, one that uses the cities and landscapes of West Texas to immerse the audience in all things oil. There’s no denying the attention to detail behind this authentic depiction of state history; the crew has faithfully scouted or re-created the experience of West Texas oil money, from the sun-bleached dirt of the oil fields to the gauche aesthetic of a Dallas country club. Then again, it doesn’t hurt to have this many native Texans working together. As a result, those little inaccuracies that can often sink a modestly budgeted period piece are nowhere to be found.
Yet the film is also a bit of an anachronism, a film made for contemporary audiences that – under the guise of a faithful adaptation – retains some of the more troublesome depictions of race, gender, and class from the novel (Paxton, a closeted gay man, gets the brunt of these bits). If it does not seem fair to project some of today’s sensibilities on a 50-year-old story, remember that good adaptation should not merely leave a novel as it found it. Writers interrogate the work they are adapting, and given the political and economic importance of the oil industry, The Iron Orchard is screaming for some connection between this and everything – good and bad – that followed.
There’s a degree of mythologization at work here, an attempt to frame the birth of the Texas oil industry as this great drinking game between old money and new money. What it lacks is a distinct perspective; for all its period details and solid acting, the underlying message about this time in Texas oil history – that it was right, that it was wrong, that it was necessary – is lacking. This makes The Iron Orchard a film that is both worse and better than it could have been.
For more on the long struggle to adapt Tom Pendleton's novel, read "Harvesting the Iron Orchard," Oct. 26, 2018.