A scintillating lead performance, a good deal of heart and a fragrant sense of place just about compensate for some slack storytelling and a forcibly elegiac tone in Hank Bedford’s Mississippi-set potboiler, “Dixieland,” which uses a standard-issue crime-thriller framework as a crutch for a far more interesting love story. Offering a fine showcase for Chris Zylka as a young ex-con who falls for the stripper next door, the pic may well attract curiosity thanks to supporting roles from country stars Steve Earle and a nearly unrecognizable Faith Hill, but VOD seems its most likely final destination.
Setting his saga in Pearl, Miss., Bedford intersperses real-life interviews with local hardcases — former drug dealers, strippers, game hunters — alongside his own fictional tale, a double-edged tactic that fleshes out the setting while also at times calling attention to the comparatively cliched story these vignettes interrupt. After some interviews and a few disorienting flashbacks/flash-forwards, the film zeroes in on a hulking young man named Kermit (Zylka), who is about to be released from prison.
As we learn, Kermit is a generally good-natured kid who got caught up in the local drug trade, and stamped his ticket to the pen when he attempted to shoot a vile strip-club owner named Larry Pretty (Brad Carter) whom he caught in a hot tub with his mom (Hill, in a world-weary role impressively scrubbed of all superstar glamour). The film is never more naturalistic than in its early scenes of Kermit waiting for a ride outside the prison, or languidly hanging around his mother’s trailer on his first day back, trying to enjoy his new freedom while keenly aware of the dearth of opportunities to do much of anything with it.
With his old running buddy (RJ Mitte) hoping to immediately re-recruit him for a big job, and Pretty — a pantomime villain with a greasy mullet and a habit of demanding liberties from the girls in his employ — lingering maliciously in the wings, Kermit finds solace in the smoky-eyed beauty who lives one double-wide down. Rachel (Riley Keough) is another essentially good kid with limited prospects, having just turned to stripping to help support her terminally ill mother.
Zylka, best known for his role on “The Leftovers,” does excellent work to sell his character, nailing a precisely calibrated combination of shiftless sexiness, little-boy-lost innocence and simmering screw-loose rage without overselling any of those elements. He and Keough exchange some tough yet believable dialogue in their scenes together, and their hurried courtship contains moments of real sweetness in a narrative that only seems to have one possible outcome.
Despite the pileup of shopworn tropes — an ex-con called back for one last job, a stripper with a heart of gold, tragic dreams of escaping from this one-horse town — Bedford does offer some interesting detours as the film ambles irrevocably toward its denouement. Most notably, he frequently pauses for swoony, Malick-indebted visual montages even when the story’s criminal elements start to kick into gear, and these interludes prove poignant and self-indulgent in roughly equal measure.
So, too, does the camerawork from Tobias Datum. Capable of capturing densely textured images of the crumbling surroundings, the d.p. also at times seems to go out of his way to shoot the actors in the most difficult, oblique manner possible, often without any obvious motivation behind the showy technique. The film certainly looks nice, though, and boasts indie-budget tech credits of impressive quality.