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Underrated: Chrystal 

Writer, director, and actor Ray McKinnon makes his feature-length debut with 2004's Chrystal, starring McKinnon's late wife Lisa Blount as the titular character and Billy Bob Thornton as her husband, Joe. After losing their young son in an auto accident, which leaves Chrystal with permanent injuries and lands Joe in prison, Joe returns home unannounced 20 years later, after serving his term. While trying to figure out what's next for each of them, Joe and Chrystal encounter a local marijuana kingpin and meth user named Snake, played by McKinnon. Snake wants Joe, a seasoned marijuana grower, to come to work for him and won't take no for an answer.

click to enlarge HEALING CHRYSTAL Lisa Blount gives a compelling performance as Chrystal, who is left with both physical and emotional pain after a car accident claims the life of her son. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRYSTAL PRODUCTIONS
  • Photo Courtesy of Chrystal Productions
  • HEALING CHRYSTAL Lisa Blount gives a compelling performance as Chrystal, who is left with both physical and emotional pain after a car accident claims the life of her son.

Set in the Ozark Mountains, the film is a dark and somewhat humorous study of two characters still struggling to deal with the repercussions of a tragedy, decades after it has passed. Blount's performance masterfully captures the listlessness of a character whose circumstances have taken a physical and emotional toll, and even when she isn't speaking the pain her character constantly experiences is visible in her body language. Chrystal's resentment of Joe, who sustained no long-term injuries from the accident, and her residual feelings for him both bubble to the surface in their interactions. Thornton's portrayal of Joe is one of quiet confidence and yet unpredictability, underscored by a desire to find a path to redemption.

The film also functions as a dramatized look at life and culture in the Ozarks. Viewers are taken down unpaved roads that snake through the woods where poor landowners hide marijuana grows and a fried catfish restaurant can be found only by word of mouth. The most prominent aspect of the culture highlighted in the film is probably the music from the region, which is featured both on the soundtrack and within the story itself. In one scene, Chrystal crosses paths with two lost travelers who've come to the Deep South from Chicago to record the local music for a book on the history of folk music. Chrystal leads them to the home of a musician named Pa Da, played by Harry Dean Stanton, where people gather on the front porch and a band plays traditional Ozark music, a genre that shares traits with Celtic music, and music of the Appalachia.

Fans of the SundanceTV series Rectify, created by McKinnon, or admirers of his other work in film and television may also appreciate this lesser-known film. And for those unfamiliar with the work of Blount, her performance is worth checking out. (120 min.)


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