Chrystal: A "Southern Gothic" Tale
of Redemption, Justice, and Resilience
by Dale Howard
The independent film Chrystal
begins with the return of Joe (Billy Bob Thornton) to his rural
Arkansas home after a long stretch in prison for drug charges.
He returns carrying some dark baggage: we learn he was arrested
sixteen years ago after he wrecked his car during a police chase
("if he hadn't been drunk, it would've killed him",
says Joe's cousin and friend, Larry). His wife Chrystal (Lisa
Blount) and boy were passengers and the crash left her with a
broken neck and their boy dead, thrown through the windshield
into the dark woods and never found. Larry (Walton Goggins) theorizes
that wild animals must have dragged the body away ("You
would of thought they would of found something, a leg bone or
shoe or something," he says). Chrystal is left with constant,
relentless physical and emotional pain and finds temporary amnesia
in impersonal, random sexual encounters. A local fortune teller
(Kathryn Howell) tells her, "You've got that child in your
neck. You can take that metaphorically or literally. But you
got to get that child out of your neck."
desperate efforts to do just that, interwoven with Joe's search
for redemption, are the backbone of the story.
After Joe returns home he and
Chrystal make halting, unsure attempts to reach out to each other
and possibly move on (Joe gets a job as a welder and at one point,
in a bizarre scene, even suggests they have another child). However,
a big space of nothingness between them and other events conspire
to prevent anything close to a seamless "happily-ever-after"
story from unfolding.
Joe is encouraged by Larry
to get back into the marijuana growing business (the only work
available, and the only work that pays well, Larry points out).
Larry reminds Joe he was renowned for the kick-ass weed he used
to cultivate. "I have a green thumb," Joe matter-of-factly
responds. The very rumor that Joe is back in the pot business
brings in, almost simultaneously, the local law, the DEA, and
an old nemesis, Snake (writer-director Ray McKinnon), an always
hyped-up, crank-snorting back-woods drug dealer. McKinnon plays
such a high-wire paranoid character that every time he appeared
on screen I automatically leaned back far into my seat. Snake
exudes danger and unpredictable violence and he's the perfect
foil for the low-key, introverted Joe. Billy Bob Thornton and
Ray McKinnon are superb and eat up every scene they're in, separately,
or especially, together.
Against this backdrop some
remarkable characters are introduced: Charlie Cato (James Intveld),
a kindly, sensitive, nuanced sheriff who falls in love with Chrystal;
Pa Da (in a wonderful cameo by Harry Dean Stanton) provides some
Ozark front-porch philosophy and bluegrass music; Chrystal's
tough/tender mother, Gladys (Grace Zabriskie), who obviously
holds no great affection for Joe and attempts to provide a modicum
of emotional stability for her daughter; and the aforementioned
cousin, Larry (Walton Goggins) who boasts of his fantastic connections
with the local drug culture. There are many other great characters,
but one stands out: Kalid (Harry Lennix), a blind musicologist
from Chicago who is writing a book on indigenous mountain music.
It is Kalid, as you might suspect, who can see things more clearly
than anyone. And it is Kalid who helps Chrystal replenish her
mountain roots and reconnect with the mystery, mythology, poetry,
music, and her love of the Arkansas Ozarks. The scene in which
Chrystal sings an old time mountain ballad (and it really is
Lisa Blount singing) on Pa Da's front porch is touching and brilliant.
Lisa Blount, like Billy Bob Thornton an Arkansas native, is brilliant
in her role as Chrystal, a woman on the brink of madness, overwhelmed
with pain and grief, and alternating between bottomless depression
and outraged anger.
The movie was filmed around
Eureka Springs, Arkansas. But to those hoping to see some picturesque
sites of this beautiful bed & breakfast mountain village,
you won't. Although some truly magnificent outdoor mountain scenes
are shown, this film mostly stays rooted in the dark shady lurking
hollows and inside the dilapidated shacks and word-of-mouth fried
catfish joints. Indeed "the setting is one of the main characters"
McKinnon points out in an interview on the film's web
page. Fittingly many of the scenes in Chrystal are
long, contemplative, and slow. We are drawn into a narrative
where things quietly unravel and the very locale invites us to
linger and sit on the porch for a spell. But, ironically, through
this quiet unraveling we become active participants in the film,
not passive observers waiting for something to be done to and
This is not to say there is
no "action" in Chrystal. There is, but even
this takes on a quite different meaning than the usual hero-centered
slam-bam action of mainstream movies (the fight scene between
Snake and Joe is quite unique). And the film is laced with humor,
some dark and surprising humor, and some hillbilly-based humor
(in the fight scene Joe taunts Snake by accusing him of marrying
one of his own sisters: "Well," Joe says, "at
least you don't have to worry about looking too far outside your
family for a date on Saturday night"). Snake comes closest
to a hillbilly stereotype (although Ray McKinnon has said "Our
characters are archetypes not stereotypes"), but McKinnon
is too skillful an actor to go over the top. Snake is indeed
a character you could plop, albeit with different lingo, dress,
mannerisms, into, say, the drug-dealing inner-city streets of
any major city where devastating unemployment and hopelessness
has been part of the atmosphere for decades.
Given the culture of the region
and a do-it-yourself tradition of justice we can see how Joe's
search for redemption leads to its logical, tragic conclusion.
Ending with, well, not to give too much away, a form of victim-precipitated
homicide. In a film dealing with outsiders (by choice or circumstance),
strange as it may sound, I saw Joe's final desperate act coming,
but I was still surprised.
Movies, of course, can have
quite an impact on viewers' perceptions of law and justice, and
Chrystal's story of an ex-con attempting to readjust to
life after prison is no exception. However, writer/director McKinnon
does not present a dichotomized world of good guys versus bad
guys, although the struggle of good vs. evil does exist (Snake
takes the prize for evil). Much to McKinnon's credit in between
these two extremes he portrays characters experiencing a great
deal of very human pain and confusion, groping and uncertainty.
In addition, McKinnon could have easily presented Sheriff Charlie
Cato (James Intveld) as a caricature in the tradition of redneck
"moonshine" movies. But interestingly the sheriff comes
across as a "good" guy. He's presented as a kindly,
caring center of stability, decency, and common sense (demonstrating
downright "soft" skills) who balances out the story's
On the other hand, the "feds,"
the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials, although
they don't come off as exactly "bad" guys, do fit nicely
into images of law enforcement represented by some segments of
the general public and popular culture. The DEA is portrayed
as an intrusive force who overreach and spend considerable time
(and, the implication is, taxpayers' money) going after the "little"
guys. After a massive busting-down-the-door DEA raid on Joe's
shack of a house (and finding no drugs) Sheriff Cato sarcastically
asks one of the DEA officers, "Well, did you break the big
drug Cartel tonight?" Isn't this typical of the red-state
political climate of the time, the local "good guys"
versus the distant, cut-off-from-the-mainstream bumbling "bad
The final scene of Chrystal
is even more emblematic given the structure of the story.
The final shot shows the sheriff's young daughter (named Ophelia)
climbing up a strange yard sculpture Joe welded together out
of scrap metal, pipes and chains, car and machinery parts, and
other discarded objects he had collected during yard clean-up
after his return home. On the very top sits a tricycle (his boy's),
jutting out like the beak of a strange bird in flight, welded
to the bizarre sculpture. The girl climbs to the top and mounts
the tricycle and pedals furiously into the setting sun, wheels
spinning in the air, going nowhere.
Ray McKinnon and his team (Ginny
Mule Pictures, which consists of Lisa Blount, his wife, and Walton
Goggins; winners, by the way, of an 2002 Academy Award for best
live action short film, The Accountant) have put together
a film that borrows from many southern literary traditions (Horton
Foote's Tender Mercies meets Thunder Road comes
to mind) and archetypical motifs right out of Joseph Campbell.
But comparisons do this film a disservice. Chrystal is
firmly in the tradition of independent film making and provides
us with a thought-provoking, conversation-generating movie experience.
That itself makes Chrystal truly unique.
The Sundance Film Festival
premiered Chrystal in 2004 and the film is now hitting
the theaters for limited release. I saw it with a very appreciative
audience at a theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas. What happens
next to Chrystal is up to First Look Media, who own the distribution
rights, and the moving-going public. I would urge the public,
movie-going or not, to see this gem of a picture.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton,
Ray McKinnon, Lisa Blount, Walton Goggins, Grace Zabriskie, James
Intveld, and Harry Dean Stanton.
Writer/Director: Ray McKinnon.
Studio: First Look Media
Rating: R for sexuality, nudity,
drug content, violence, and language.
Run time: 120 minutes.
Posted May 17, 2005