Ray McKinnon’s debut feature film is a sometimes audacious, occasionally downright brilliant, always watchable work that somehow just misses being wholly successful — and I’m not even sure why. It’s very much of a piece with McKinnon’s Oscar-winning short, The Accountant, in that it presents a unique — and refreshing — view of the South.
Yes, it’s the rural South so beloved by people who specialize in setting films here. All the “colorful” folks are on hand, but there’s a huge difference in McKinnon’s characters — the sort of difference that you’d expect from the man who posed the question in The Accountant of whether the characters that film actually knew anyone with a name like “Billy Bob.” (Casting Thornton in Chrystal becomes a neat in-joke.)
McKinnon’s vision of the South focuses on people in settings that look as expected, but who are clearly not stock “lower depths” yokels. They have broad frames of reference and talk about more than cars with 454 engines and ‘shine.
As with the characters in The Accountant, the people in Chrystal are at the end of their respective ropes, but the observation here is much more complex, richer, deeper. And as filmmaking, this is a huge advance for McKinnon. The opening is nothing short of brilliant — an almost hallucinatory sequence quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Considering the take-it-or-leave-it visual quality of The Accountant, this is all the more astonishing.
Similarly fine are the interweavings of later scenes — there’s a remarkable fight scene that’s intercut with a musical recitation — that give the film a densely layered quality it would otherwise lack. Whatever its ultimate failings as drama, I have no reservations about praising Chrystal — and recommending it — as filmmaking.
The story is certainly serviceable enough. Billy Bob Thornton plays Joe, a man who has just left prison after doing 20 years on drug charges, returning to the wife, Chrystal (Lisa Blount), whom he left injured in the car crash that resulted from his attempts to escape arrest. Worse, the wreck apparently killed their child (though no body was ever found) and left Chrystal permanently injured and psychologically damaged — not in the least because she’s spent much of the intervening years prostituting herself to the local high school boys. Joe is hoping somehow to expiate his sins by his return.
That’s a workable premise, and on occasion it generates some powerful scenes — but somehow it’s not quite enough to carry the movie to a satisfactory conclusion. For one thing, I think it simply goes on too long for its own good and the conclusion is too drawn out given its predictability. It also may have been a mistake to cast Thornton in the film. Yes, he’s good in the role, but his portrayal has the problem of being a little — even a lot — like too many other Thornton characterizations.
However, this is still a film that’s well worth a look. When at its best, Chrystal is very good indeed — good enough to make me anxious to see McKinnon’s next film.
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, drug content, violence and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke