Like a distinctively Southern piece of literature, “Chrystal” is a story of family tragedy and afflicted characters in desperate need of redemption. Nicely put together by the husband-and-wife team of writer-producer-director Ray McKinnon and producer-star Lisa Blount, whose 2001 short “The Accountant” won an Oscar, pic tells in measured fashion the peculiar tale of an emotionally scarred couple’s cautious reunion two decades after a traumatic event. Respectable piece of work is reasonably involving if not compelling, and has an outside chance at a little theatrical headway based on Billy Bob Thornton’s name, especially in the South, before securing a niche in cable and ancillary markets.
Striking opening, shot from high overhead, shows two vehicles, one a cop car with lights flashing, streaking through the night. After the lead car crashes, we are left with the haunting image of a little boy standing in the headlights in the woods and finally walking away, as his badly injured mother lies hanging out the windshield.
Twenty years later, the mother, Chrystal (Blount), is taking on all comers in the back seat of a car. When she returns to her farm in the Arkansas Ozarks, who should turn up unannounced but her husband Joe (Thornton), who’s been in prison all this time. They say little to each other as the meek, wary Joe quietly takes up residence on the porch with the dog and begins doing odd jobs around the property. Chrystal, who moves slowly and stiffly due to pain from the old accident, watches him and slips him food outside.
Lording it over the area is aptly named dope dealer Snake (a very slimy McKinnon), the modern-day equivalent of a moonshine bootlegger who pressures Joe to grow marijuana for him on his property. After a big and oddly fought public fistfight, it’s clear nothing good can result between these two, but there’s much that will happen before the long arc of this drama plays itself out.
Slowly, Chrystal and Joe begin to communicate. Although she tells him that, “You poison everything you touch,” she has always loved Joe, a bad decision her nosy mother (Grace Zabriskie) blames on her daughter’s having read too much “Tennessee Wilson and Truman Capote” in her youth. For his part, Joe, who’s putting his welding skills to use creating an enormous free-form metal sculpture in the yard, just wants his wife to tell him what to do.
A subplot that seems extraneous on paper but becomes intriguing is the visit to the area by a blind musicologist, Kalid (Harry Lennix), who’s writing a book on mountain music and wants to track down local legend Pa Da (Harry Dean Stanton). Chrystal’s own singing impresses Kalid, leading to a tentative emotional connection between the urban black man and hillbilly white woman with potential to go further were it not for Chrystal’s lingering issues with Joe.
Most Southern Gothic touch involves Chrystal’s belief that the pain in her neck is the manifestation of her dead son, who we have come to understand was killed in the car crash. The eternal grief and longing she feels for her boy, coupled with Joe’s culpability for his death, provides the primal emotional force behind the drama, one that resolves itself in effective fashion after the more overt and violent melodrama involving Snake has come and gone.
Salvation more in personal than religious terms is the overriding concern of McKinnon’s thorough but generally understated script. Traditionally told yarn is well built, with special attention given to the main character’s deep motivations and paradoxical natures.
Working in his most subdued mode, Thornton effectively puts across a man who knows he will never escape the consequences of his past mistakes but just might be capable of providing some release for Chrystal after all the pain he’s caused her. Chrystal’s resolute steadfastness makes the character a bit monotonous at prolonged exposure, but Blount clearly expresses her fundamental nature and deep torments. Secondary cast lends colorful support.
Shot around Eureka Springs, Ark., pic evinces a strong sense of place. Tech qualities are solid, and musical elements add significant flavors.