Ray McKinnon both wrote and directed this film and also plays one of the key characters (in an award-deserving performance for supporting actor!). His method of telling a story is as slow and gradual as a festering abscess and he makes his audience stay alert until all of the dots are gradually joined to reveal the whole picture: that takes writing and directing guts in a time when audiences want to be spoon fed linear plots summarized in a sentence. McKinnon's courage (and budgetary constraints) made him cast his film with mostly unknown actors, each of whom performs like seasoned veterans. How much of that is due to the presence of such fine talent as Billy Bob Thornton, Harry Dean Stanton, and Lisa Blount is up for speculation, but it is McKinnon's sure hand both in writing and in directing that makes this little film so pungent and memorable.
Joe (Billy Bob Thornton - in a brilliantly understated performance) returns to a little trashy town in Arkansas in mid Ozarks after a 20 year prison time for drugs, DUI, and attempts to escape: his imprisonment began after a car crash that killed his young son and left his wife Chrystal (Lisa Blount, an actress of tremendous depth) with a broken neck and a broken spirit and soul, living in squalor and providing sex for all of the men and boys of the area. Chrystal is a used, spent, fragile creature, in constant pain from her neck fracture and living like a walking emotional zombie. Joe returns, and without much dialogue cleans the yard and house and land and ensconces himself on the porch of their house, tended only by Chrystal's confused old dog.
Word gets around that Joe, known for his growing of high caliber marijuana before incarceration, has returned and the local smarmy drug king Snake (Ray McKinnon) and his pals attempt to draw Joe back into a life of crime. Joe aches for redemption for his past mistakes, longs to retrieve his marriage with the severely emotionally damaged Chrystal, and is willing to fight to protect his new life. Gruesome encounters with Snake and with the townsfolk ensue. With all of the myriad pieces of this story finally woven into an amazing quilt, Joe and Chrystal come as close to redemption as is feasible.
The story is so much more layered than this too brief synopsis, but revealing more would deprive the viewer of the heady work and rewards of staying with this stunning film. The musical score is spare but eminently appropriate, combining Bruce Springsteen records with original music by Stephen Trask and some haunting Ozark tunes sung by Lisa Blount, Harry Dean Stanton (as Pa Da) and others. The setting is atmospheric and the cinematography by Adam Kimmel captures McKinnon's story's mood impeccably. The cast is some of the finest ensemble acting seen in years, especially in view of the fact that most of the actors have little screen experience.
Sounds like a rave review? Well, it is. This is one extraordinary piece of work and just like the not dissimilar Faulkner novels it takes work, but the payoff is equally satisfying. Highly Recommended - for viewing, for the afterburn of the experience, and for votes for just awards! Grady Harp