Ray McKinnon's feature debut Chrystal gets through about eight minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken, and though it gets a lot chattier, it never really gets any louder. It's a movie about mourning and regret, with Billy Bob Thornton in the same emotional-shutdown mode that he's explored in Levity and Monster's Ball. Thornton plays a marijuana farmer fresh out of prison after a car accident 16 years ago that crippled his wife Lisa Blount and apparently killed their child. (The body was never recovered.) While the couple tentatively tries to reconnect, Blount spends too much time with visiting folklorists played by Harry Lennix and Harry Dean Stanton, and Thornton spends too much time with a couple of drug dealers played by Walton Goggins and McKinnon himself.
Chrystal has an unusual plot, and McKinnon supports it with a lot of local color. He packs the soundtrack with Southern rockers like Drive-By Truckers, and sets the action in mountainside cabins and catfish restaurants. It's sort of a sampler of the best and worst of the South: Lennix waxes rhapsodic about the indigenous bluegrass and blues, but most of the film's characters are patched-pants rednecks who have to figure out who has the fewest DUI convictions before deciding who's fit to drive.
The guys' rowdiness makes for a welcome change from an otherwise brooding mood, but McKinnon gets so captivated by the outlaws that he loses track of his central relationship. Thornton and Blount spend most of the movie apart, which is no great loss on the Thornton end, since his low-key, mumbly performances tend to be his worst. But Blount doesn't get the chance to dwell on what it means to lose a child until the very end, by which time her character has begun to fade into the Southern Gothic atmosphere. And even that atmosphere feels a little forced. It's not that hillbillies don't exist, or that there's not still a thick line of backwoods spiritualism in contemporary Southern culture, but those elements stand against rooftop satellite dishes and frequent trips to larger towns. If the people in Chrystal are intended to be authentic, why do none of them look like they've ever seen the inside of a Wal-Mart?