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 a recent 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," explains McKinnon. "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, another Southerner 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, Arkansas. He can't figure out why more films aren't shot 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."
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.
If it wasn't for the high-profile Billy Bob Thornton heading the cast and other notable pros on both sides of the camera, Chrystal ( out of four) could easily pass as a prime example of low-budget regional filmmaking; even in its present state, it's not far off the mark. Writer-director Ray McKinnon has made an affecting melodrama that's deep-fried in Southern heritage right down to its ribs : this is the sort of film in which the story often feels incidental to its makers' ability to capture a specific landscape and its people. Thornton stars as Joe, who returns to his backwoods home in the Ozarks following a two-decade stint in prison. Joe's a man seeking redemption: Before going to jail, he was involved in a high-speed pursuit with the cops that ended with the physical death of his infant son and the spiritual death of his wife Chrystal (Lisa Blount, McKinnon's real-life spouse). Back in an attempt to begin life anew, Joe finds that communicating with his wife is a difficult task, made even more stressful by the interference of a slimy redneck (McKinnon) who's trying to bully Joe into embarking once again down the criminal path. Thornton is effective in his own understated way, even though he's essentially repeating his characterizations from Levity and Monster's Ball; more interesting to watch is Blount, whose portrayal provides the film with a haunting stillness that permeates every scene.
- Matt Brunson