Chrystal (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film grossed $80,000. At the time I rented it, it was rated 4.0 at IMDb.

I figured it must suck mightily, right?

 I almost passed on it entirely when I collected the new releases from Blockbuster this week, but I broke down and rented when I saw that it was rated R for, among other reasons, nudity. Best decision I've made in a long time.

The official publicity spin says, "Set in the Ozark mountains, Chrystal combines red-dirt realism with the fabulist Southern literary tradition part Flannery O'Connor, part Johnny Cash to tell a wild and haunting tale of the power of true love." I think this may represent the first time I've ever agreed with one of those official blurbs. That sentence sums it up beautifully.

Chrystal is a story about a man who made a great mistake when he was young. He landed in prison when his own criminal activity caused a car accident that killed his son and left his wife partly paralyzed. Returning to his Ozark home as a middle-aged man, he does his best to attain redemption, sometimes failing, but also succeeding in about equal measure.

Let me cut to the chase on this one and say that it is a helluva movie. Set among the improverished rurals of Arkansas, it manages to portray their lives with humanity and compassion, yet without condescension. Unlike most Hollywood movies, it manages to tell a central story that is heartbreaking without being phony or syrupy, and without resorting to obviously manipulative musical cues. The background stories are sometimes more interesting than the main plot, and can be very funny, because the unaffected characters react to events in natural ways. Here's an example. When a woman tells her daughter solemnly that the family patriarch, apparently succumbing to senile dementia, was caught stealing a dress from a clothesline and wearing it, the daughter thinks a second, furrows her forehead in concern, and  asks, "How'd he look?" Mother and daughter erupt in tension-relieving laughter. There is humor, but the writing can also be delicate and poetic, and can also be gritty and realistic when required, following the tradition of the best Southern gothic writers. Hell, this is the screenplay Faulkner should have written when he was jerking off in Hollywood. The last act does include some unwelcome contrivances, but by that point, much like Magnolia, the film had earned the right to jump into the deep end.

Ray McKinnon, the writer and director of this film, is a fortyish character actor who had never before directed a feature film. Hadn't written one either. He didn't make many missteps in this film, and his only other directing effort of any kind, a short called "The Accountant" won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film! His direction in Chrystal was as good as his writing, so good that it's impossible to believe that he's a rookie. I paid attention to his storyboarding, what he was doing with camera movement, when he was choosing to change the focal point of a scene, how he backed up the story with the musical soundtrack, when he chose silence over music, his control of the cinematography, his use of the local culture for background, and so forth. By God, I don't know if Atom Egoyan or Jean-Pierre Jeunet could have done this film any better with the same budget! McKinnon may have made a couple of rookie mistakes here and there, but I'll just tell you right now that this weather-beaten sumbitch from Georgia jus plain done good.

Of course, it didn't hurt his story about Arkansas that he happens to be married to a good actress from Arkansas (Lisa Blount), and it surely didn't hurt his little redneck drama that his lead actor is the king of all the redneck actors, Billy Bob Thornton. (Kudos to Billy Bob for doing this. It must have been a labor of love because he couldn't have drawn much of a paycheck, and he turned in a good dramatic performance.) And it didn't hurt at all that McKinnon was able to play the antagonist himself, because he's a good character actor. Oh, I know you don't know his name, but you'd recognize him. Most recently, you may have seen his tall, thin frame wandering through the streets of "Deadwood," playing the naive and slightly dotty preacher in season one of that series.

Despite encomiums from IMDb members and some critics, almost nobody could be persuaded to pluck down any dollars to see it. It never made it onto more than 11 screens in the entire USA, and it didn't even do well in those few theaters, finally grossing only $80,000. Of course, this is a quiet, slow, literary, heartbreaking, and almost arty redneck film, an odd combination, so the potential audience is limited. I don't actually know how many people want to see an arty, slow, heartbreaking, 123 minute film about the Ozarks, but those who do have found their Holy Grail.



  • The widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced, and looks good.
  • There are no features - although it is one of the few films I genuinely wanted to know more about.



Lisa Blount shows her breasts in a crazy and effective scene in which the DEA sends in a heavily-armed team to capture Billy Bob in his bed ... only to find all their guns pointed at a helpless naked woman.

The Critics Vote ...

  • How did Chrystal play in the Ozarks? Read the review of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Even ignoring the fact that I happen to agree with it, I think it is a beautiful and literate piece of film criticism.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It never could find an audience. Maybe it never will. Pity.  Domestic gross was $80,000 - and even that measly amount took 11 weeks to achieve!
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+, a film with beautiful writing, acting, and directing - most of it from the same guy! And there's some pretty damned good music as well!

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