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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.

After Chrystal's limited release in the South, McKinnon plans to begin work on his second feature, a Georgia-set comedy called Randy and the Mob, in which he plays estranged twin brothers. But even doing light fare, don't expect cookie-cutter cornpone farce from the filmmaker. When it comes to chronicling the South on screen, he's a rebel.

Southern man

Ray McKinnon’s ‘The Accountant’ compounds interest

By Curt Holman

You can order a DVD of the short film “The Accountant” on the website of filmmaker Ray McKinnon’s Ginny Mule production company (www.ginnymule.com) ­— and in fact, if you have any interest in Southern movies, or funny movies, or excellent movies of any kind, you must. The little-seen short may be one of the most essential films ever made about the South.

I first saw “The Accountant” on a screener with other short films playing the 2001 Atlanta Film Festival. I popped it in the VCR knowing nothing but McKinnon’s local connections, and found myself mesmerized within minutes. When my wife came home from work that night, I insisted she watch it immediately, and she fell under its sway as well. Then I had to show it to all my friends, who not only loved it, too, but often wanted their own copy. Infectiously watchable, “The Accountant” resembles the kind of supernatural video you find in movies like The Ring.

At first, the hilarious, pitch-perfect dark comedy unfolds like a modern-day Flannery O’Connor tale. A farmer (Eddie King) and his white-collar brother (Walton Goggins) face foreclosure of the family farm when a drawling, chain-smoking, hard-drinking number-cruncher (McKinnon) comes up with a dangerously unorthodox solution.

“My God, where’s this coming from?” McKinnon asked himself while writing “The Accountant’s” first draft over a white-hot two-week period. After the fact, he realized that “The Accountant’s” inspiration came from two sources. Every time he drove from the Atlanta airport to his hometown of Adel, he saw a beautiful but abandoned farmhouse, and alongside it, a modest trailer where the family actually lived. Writing “The Accountant” gave him a way to imagine the family’s story.

His script also derives from a rural version of an urban legend. “Growing up, I heard about this guy who’d cut off a digit from time to time to get insurance money: You’d get a certain amount for a leg, a certain amount for an arm. Not so much for a finger — but he didn’t have high aims, just drinkin’ money. A little toe, you might get a couple of six packs. True or not, the story stuck with me.”

“The Accountant” ingeniously balances black humor with the plight of a family farm, then takes a mind-boggling turn. McKinnon’s bean counter spins disturbingly plausible conspiracy theories about the media distortions of South and the homogenization of America. He even intimates that future Chrystal star Billy Bob Thornton may not be a real person. The accountant neatly sums up his beliefs about the vanishing Southern way of life in a line about the restaurant chain, Boston Market. He tells the brothers, “One day your kids’ll eat cornbread that’s sweet, and drink ice tea that ain’t, and think that’s a Southern tradition.”

While making the film, McKinnon wondered whether the short would speak to anyone beyond his immediate circle of friends and fellow filmmakers.

“I certainly hoped it would resonate with Southerners, especially a certain kind of Southerner who’s thoughtful, who’s gone to Jackson, Miss., and said, ‘This could be anywhere in America.’ Because everywhere you go, there’s Chili’s For Ribs and Best Buys and the Hilton. You could be in Jackson, or you could be in Southern California.” And it’s not just a Southern matter. “The homogeny and pop-culturalization is happening all over the world.”

He found a firsthand example of the ‘mall-ization’ of the South when he scouted for a suitable farmhouse within a 35-mile radius of Atlanta for a shooting location. “I found out that a 35-mile radius of Atlanta, was Atlanta.” Even the twanging Jimmie Dale Gilmore tune playing over the opening credits fakes out the audience, according to the filmmaker. He likes that viewers will sit down with “The Accountant” and think at first, “Oh, this is one of those country movies. Here’s the shots of the cotton fields, here’s the country music playing, and — holy shit, that’s ‘Mack the Knife!’”

“The Accountant” not only subverts expectations for Southern film, its cunning satire exposes unsettling cultural trends with implications far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.

“The Accountant” won Best Short Film at the 2002 Academy Awards, after a qualifying run at the Atlanta Film Festival, and McKinnon says that though he’s proud of it, he won’t let the Oscar go to his head. “I have to keep it in proper size. The accolades have been very nice, but it is a short film, it’s not Best Picture.”

In fact, the Oscar statuette makes him a little uneasy.

“First of all, it’s too shiny. I’ll be going along in my house, being the goofy doofus that I am, and I see this shiny thing and think, ‘Oh my God, I have to be a proper citizen.’ I don’t like having it around, really. So I hid it, so I don’t have to see it and no one will steal it — but then I couldn’t find it for two weeks.”

Perhaps McKinnon should hire an accountant to keep track of it.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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