Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Dale Howard
teaches sociology at NorthWestern Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Arkansas. His current research and writing interests include the impact of media on society and film, socialization, and social "reelism."

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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 for us.

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."

Chrystal's 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 for us.

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 structure.

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 guys"?

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

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