`Chrystal': no Southern comfort


April 29, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

I doubt if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation," wrote Flannery O'Connor, "but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque, you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque and why." Ray McKinnon has that notion, and it's his signal strength as a Southern writer-director.

Chrystal, set in the Arkansas Ozarks, tells the often violent and lowdown story of a guy named Joe (Billy Bob Thornton), a one-time marijuana grower who, racing from police, wrecked his car - killing his young son and ruining nerves running up the spine of his wife, Chrystal (Lisa Blount). Twenty years later, he returns from prison to a spouse who can dull her pain and pay her bills only through back-seat sex.

The movie seems stiff and portentous until you realize McKinnon has begun it at a stiff, portentous moment in their lives. The film kicks loose of its torpor as Joe cleans up the house and goes to work building steel barns (they won't rot) and as Chrystal gains moments of clarity through the unexpected visit of a blind musicologist (Harry Lennix). When she sees him stuck in the mud, she gives him and his helpmate (Johnny Galecki) a ride to meet a musician named Pa Da (Harry Dean Stanton), who for a moment or two helps Chrystal to feel free.

This movie, thank God, isn't just about "letting go," but about mining the past for truth and strength. At the same time that Chrystal goes to Pa Da's, Joe goes to a catfish joint where he reopens unfinished business with a rural drug kingpin named Snake (McKinnon, in a superbly scary performance). When Chrystal, at Pa Da's, breaks into a song called "Rockin' Chair," the purity of her emotion stops your heart; when Joe seems to hear her, miles away, the intensity of his confusion starts it up again.

Like the deep Ozark valley that Chrystal has grown to love, the movie is about the perils and the sadness of an enclosed life, and the beauty inside that sadness and those perils. It never stops being slightly awkward, but the vibrant actors fill it with indelible moments - like Grace Zabriskie, as Chrystal's mother, trying to massage the pain out of her head, or Colin Fickes, as slacker Hog, realizing in a panic that he's in over his head with the likes of Snake.

Sadly, a mistaken makeup choice just about ruins the key, penultimate sequence. Famed critic Pauline Kael once noted that no actor can survive a bad toupee. Thornton proves near the end of Chrystal that no actor can survive a bad fake beard.


Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount

Directed by Ray McKinnon

Released by First Look

Rated R

Time 106 minutes

Sun Score *** (3 stars)

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