Chrystal Review
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First the good news: had the movie Chrystal been released in the 1920s, it would have made a splendid Expressionist silent film. The film’s images are its strength: an accident victim lying on the hood of a car and the receding young son amid the blinking headlights; Drug Enforcement Agency storm troopers raiding a home and snatching a bedspread to reveal the corpse-like body of a sleeping invalid; a bleeding sun setting over a stagnant river. All these potent visuals have a homespun hick poetry. Call it what you will, Chrystal is a hymn to hillbilly culture.

In theory, the plot appears promising: an Appalachian drug runner named Joe (Billy Bob Thornton) flees the police with his family and suffers a fateful car accident. The results: Joe is sent to the Big House for 16 years; his wife, Chrystal, (Lisa Blount) suffers a broken neck and becomes a physically-handicapped whore; and, finally, their young son mysteriously disappears. When Joe returns home to a family he has effectively destroyed, he must reap what he has carelessly sown. His welcoming committee includes Snake, a crank-sloppy and dangerous drug-lord (played by writer/director Ray McKinnon) who tries to tempt Joe back to his old ways.

Now for the bad news: once the actors begin mumbling their lines, the movie suffers a mudslide. Chrystal displays all the hallmarks of a bad 1980s indie: the self-involved storytelling’s pacing crept by so slowly that I almost expected to receive my Social Security check by the time the credits rolled. The interminable Harold-Pinter-like pauses between dialogue nearly provoked deep sleep. And, finally, the movie’s diffuse point of view and plot points never enable the viewer to know—or care—whose story we’re watching.

There may be such a thing as taking realism too far. Chrystal’s characters are frankly repellent. As a small-town prostitute ministrating to teenage boys, Chrystal is introduced spread-eagled in the back seat of a Chevy as an interlude to a game of catch. Blount renders her character as a languorous ghost trying to exorcise her demons. Thornton, though a proven exceptional actor and the billed star, seems superfluous. Maybe this was a grand but ill-considered gesture on Thornton’s part to return to “do-it-yourself” filmmaking roots, given the big-budget dreck he’s churned out lately. Unfortunately, in Chrystal, his character isn’t given much to do but brood and mumble cynical bromides until the end, when his absence is more profoundly felt than his presence.

Loose ends prevail. I don’t know if they were somehow integral to the point of the film (whatever it was), but it makes for an unsatisfying cinematic experience. For example, the disappearance of the young son following the car crash is never adequately resolved. My only explanation: the kid saw the movie for what it was and ran for the hills, never looking back.

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