||In “Levity,” a ponderous, earnest tale of personal redemption from 2003, Billy Bob Thornton played a just-released convict striving to atone for his crime by helping the family of the man he’d killed, and aiding others in the process. Thornton played the part with a pretentious sense of calm that bordered on the comatose, and sported a Christ-like head of long hair to go along with his character’s voluntary suffering. Now Thornton reappears in this film, in which he once more plays a newly-freed prisoner, this time Joe, who’s trying to re-establish a relationship with his wife Chrystal (Lisa Blount), who’d been terribly injured in the crash of a car he’d been driving while smuggling drugs nearly two decades earlier; to add to his burden of guilt, their young son had been killed in the accident as well. Thornton doesn’t have long hair through most of the picture, but toward the close he appears after a spell in hiding in the Arkansas backwoods, and he’s grown a beard that might get him a spot in a revived Z-Z Top (and certainly exceeds the length of the phony one he wore in “Bad Santa”). His performance again emphasizes almost preternatural stillness, and despite the periodic bursts of violence in the narrative, this film too moves at a virtually glacial pace, dramatizing its story less than entombing it. Like “Levity,” it’s very well-intentioned but extremely hard going.
Of course, what the filmmakers are aiming for is a kind of mythic quality; they want to elevate material that might, if played more crudely, have served as the stuff of potboilers to the level of art. This is a tale, after all, that features a sleazy character called Snake (Ray McKinnon, who also wrote and directed), who runs the local drug trade and tries to pressure Joe to return to the business (and engages in a fistfight with Joe that’s itself half farce and half brutal reality), as well as Chrystal’s loquacious mother (Grace Zabriskie), who offhandedly ascribes her daughter’s problems to an early acquaintance with the works of Tennessee Wilson (as she calls him) and Truman Capote, and a couple of fun-loving local lads called Shorty and Hog (Max Kasch and Colin Fickes), the former of whom had enjoyed Chrystal’s easy favors prior to Joe’s return. Yet it also includes a subplot concerning a blind University of Chicago musicologist named Kalid (Harry Lennix) who arrives in the area to document the players surrounding Pa Da (Harry Dean Stanton), a sort of avatar of mountain musicianship; he’s taken with Chrystal’s singing, and becomes her would-be protector when Snake and his minion Larry (Walton Goggins), Joe’s seedy cousin, come looking for her after her husband’s been framed for growing weed and forced to take to the hills. There’s also a quiet, honorable local cop who exhibits a degree of respect for all the locals and serves as reminder that even in such an environment there’s a natural dignity and gentility at work.
McKinnon strives to draw these disparate elements--part backwoods melodrama and part symbol-laden tragedy--into a coherent whole, in the fashion of other major works that center on the absence of the offspring that could cement a couple’s relationship (just think of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”). But the effort doesn’t really take in this instance, particularly because as director he paces everything so ploddingly. The result becomes more like a Southern Gothic funeral than a serious treatment of the themes of loss, guilt and moral repayment. That doesn’t mean that the picture is without its moments. The deliberate tempo sometimes brings its own rewards, particularly when it involves Thornton, who’s shown himself again and again able to hold the screen for long periods with a minimum of movement (most successfully in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”). Stanton also brings an unaffected charm to his brief moments as Pa Da. But elsewhere things aren’t nearly as happy. Blount works very hard, but Chrystal’s impassive character doesn’t afford her much variety of expression, and though the others draw colorful sketches (with McKinnon and Fickes hitting the highest notes), none of them manages to fashion a fully-rounded character rather than a type. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel uses the locations to capture some striking images (even though many seem held for an eternity), and the musical contributions by Stephen Trask and Don Fleming add to the mood.
But although there are periodic gleams of excellence in “Chrystal,” overall the film lacks the radiance it obviously aspires to.