Film Reviews: Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Lisa Blount tries to break through her emotional haze in ‘Chrystal.’
Starring Lisa Blount and Billy Bob Thornton. Written and directed by Ray McKinnon. Rated R.
Foggy Chrystal

This Arkansas-set drama is southern and indie to the nth degree. Too bad it isn’t better.


How indie is the low-budget drama Chrystal? Exactly seven lines of dialogue are spoken in the entire first 20 minutes, Stephen Trask’s score is full of noodling electric guitar solos and mournful fiddles, and there are a great many shots of the verdant landscape of the Ozarks dotted with rusted-out cars. This sort of thing is catnip for the organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie debuted last year. The trouble is that there’s a fine line between “sparse and poetic” and “underwritten and plodding,” and this falls squarely in the latter camp.
We first see the title character (Lisa Blount) in the passenger seat of a car driven by her husband Joe (Billy Bob Thornton) as they’re being chased by the police down a country road at night. Joe runs the car off the road and down a hill, leaving Chrystal with a broken neck and their young son dead. The rest of the film takes place 16 years later, when Joe turns up in her living room after having just been released from prison. He doesn’t know where else to go, and he seems to be looking for forgiveness or guidance. Unfortunately, the ghost-like Chrystal is in no shape to give him anything at all. Walking around the house with some difficulty and pain, she appears out of it on a fairly permanent basis. The prevailing opinion is that she’s crazy, given her habit of having sex with almost every young man in the area and her belief (picked up from a fortune teller who’s speaking metaphorically) that her dead son is lodged in her neck.
This is the first feature by writer-director Ray McKinnon, who won an Oscar for his 2001 short film The Accountant. You’re more likely to know him from his lengthy career as an actor, however. (He punched out George Clooney at the Woolworth’s store in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) As a director, he seems uncertain whether to film his story realistically or in a style closer to Southern Gothic. That’s probably why the film takes such a disastrous wrong turn near the end, when Joe disappears and then mysteriously returns to save Chrystal from being raped, and what’s supposed to be a quasi-miraculous scene comes out as merely confusing. The story has little structure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the setting lends itself to a certain degree of slackness, as long as the incidents and characters are interesting. That is not the case here, and the movie is suffocatingly dull at times.
Thornton is the big name in this cast, but his role is strictly a supporting one. The real lead in this film is Blount, who is married to McKinnon in real life. She has big, saucer-shaped eyes and full, sensual lips. Looking at her, it’s hard to believe that she’s 47, yet it must be true — she first broke into Hollywood in 1983’s An Officer and a Gentleman. The movie appears to have been conceived as a vehicle for her, and she does reasonably well with Chrystal’s near-catatonic emotional disengagement and her physical pains. Films built around characters like these usually build up to a big outburst, though, and it doesn’t come off. (Between the actress’ voice and her character’s mental state, she sounds disconcertingly close to Anna Nicole Smith.) She’s hampered in large part by the script, which tries to invest its silences and unsaid words with deep meaning but instead leaves too many blanks, and she doesn’t really do much to fill them in.
As for the other actors, Thornton does a typically understated performance as a guy weighed down by his guilt, and the formidable English actor Harry J. Lennix lends his gravitas to the role of a blind African-American musicologist from Chicago who’s traveled to Arkansas to record the local bluegrass musicians. McKinnon, who frequently plays clean-cut characters such as cops and lawyers, casts himself effectively against type as a scummy, menacing drug dealer who gets angry with Joe for refusing to grow marijuana for him.
The movie does deliver some striking visuals in the aftermath of the car crash early on and in its final shot. Still, Chrystal falls far short of other recent independent films in the same vein set in the rural South: Thornton’s Sling Blade, David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, and even the second half of Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues, which is playing at AMC Hulen right now. McKinnon’s film doesn’t have the skill to make its patient lyricism work. Too often, its pregnant pauses are just so much dead air.

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