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Dark Chrystal 

Actor/director Ray McKinnon revels in the real South

Filmmaker and character actor Ray McKinnon has spent his career playing against Southern clichés.

A native of Adel, Ga., McKinnon has a long, lanky frame and gentle drawl that, from his first film role as "Alabama trooper No. 1" in Driving Miss Daisy, threatened to pigeonhole him as a harmless good ol' boy. He could have settled into a successful niche playing, say, quirky deputies alongside bullying sheriffs, but instead he broke the mold for rural characters. He recently finished the recurring portrayal of "Deadwood's" doomed preacher and may be most familiar as Holly Hunter's high-strung suitor in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

But Hollywood's condescension toward the South never left him laughing. After a stint doing stage work in Atlanta, McKinnon moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s to break into films, and he was shocked by the stereotyping he found there.

"I was really naive back then," McKinnon recalls during an interview at a Los Angeles bistro. "I'd audition for roles in movies ... and I'd read the dialogue and the setting and say, 'This is crap. How is this possible?'" With a passion to do justice to his home region, he started writing scripts that chronicled not the cute, quaint South, or even the slick New South, but the true, unique South.

In 2002, McKinnon won an Oscar for writing, directing and playing the title character in "The Accountant," a short film that, despite its 38-minute running time, remains one of the best - and funniest - movies ever made about the realities of Dixie. And with his first feature film, Chrystal, he attempts to build on "The Accountant's" below-the-radar popularity with a dark Southern drama that owes more to Jim Jarmusch than Sweet Home Alabama.

McKinnon's wife and co-producer, Lisa Blount (best known as Debra Winger's mercenary pal in An Officer and a Gentleman), plays Chrystal's title role, an agonized woman living in the Ozarks 16 years after losing her son - and breaking her back - when her husband Joe (Billy Bob Thornton) crashed their car during a police chase. Joe returns after years in jail on drug charges to seek redemption from his wife.

In the tradition of a Tennessee Williams heroine, Chrystal's sanity and sexuality have both run off the rails: In an early scene, she services young football players in the back of a car. "I was very influenced by independent films and wanted to write something that was way, way independent. I wanted to do something that was Southern, but that also had a madness to it." McKinnon further fuels Chrystal's live-wire intensity by portraying Snake, a hillbilly drug lord who tries to bring Joe back into the fold.

Seeking to get Chrystal financed, McKinnon discovered that his script's mountain madness scared off many potential backers, one of whom sniffed, "Who are these country people?" McKinnon sought to answer that question in Chrystal by revealing both the dark side and the dignity of "country people."

"For some reason, things in the South are more distilled, more amplified. There's this great beauty to the South, and this great darkness," he says.

McKinnon shared his dedication for regional authenticity with his castmates and co-producers, Blount and "The Shield's" Walt Goggins, a Lithia Springs native (who first worked with McKinnon when they played drug dealers on "In the Heat of the Night").

"Most Southern films are written by people who have never spent any significant time in the South. They write from a memory of other movies," says McKinnon. "Whereas we know these guys. We grew up with these guys. Guys like Snake scared the shit out of me, and I was from a small Southern town."

McKinnon filmed Chrystal on location in the Ozarks, not far from Blount's hometown of Fayetteville, Ark. He can't figure out why films aren't shot more often in America's most culturally rich settings. "Here's a beautiful place, right in the middle of our country, that seldom gets a cinematographic exploration. Why is that? I see movies that have no sense of place, because they're shot in Toronto or Romania."

A rough cut of Chrystal received a mixed reception at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, but saw greater success at festivals in Savannah and Stockholm (where Blount won a best actress award). McKinnon feels it's easily misunderstood.

"Chrystal has been described, on a sound-bite level, as being about a man and woman who lose their child and the man returns for forgiveness. That makes it sound like this heavy, plodding drama, but it's misleading to say it's like Monster's Ball or In the Bedroom. There's uproarious stuff going on, too." Chrystal grooves to mountain music and lightens up considerably with the antics of Goggins' backwoods pothead and friends.

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