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Dark Chrystal 

Actor/director Ray McKinnon revels in the real South

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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.”

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