Southern Gothic for Marriage Nominations.
Raw heartache and traumatized lives are grim reality in this 2004 drama, starring Billy Bob Thornton and the now deceased Lisa Blount. A red dirt scratchwork of southern gothic suspense is the foundation on which the two deliver bold and riveting performances.
Joe (Thornton), involved in a high speed chase by a cop, nervously navigates the back wood Ozark roads with his small boy and wife Chrystal (Blount) at his side. It's hard to know exactly what is his crime (the viewer tends to think there might be quite a few), but this ends in the same sad fashion as many of these types of chases -- Chrystal's neck broken through the windshield, their child gone (presumed dead), and Joe carted off to jail for the next sixteen years.
Over time, Chrystal's mental condition erodes until only a shell of a woman remains. She is promiscuous with teens, can barely string together a sentence, and seems to care very little about moving forward. She always said that Joe was the one with the bad luck, but seeing her so traumatized, unable to find that needed healing, one has to wonder whether the bad luck was actually their bond.
Out of nowhere Joe's out of prison and back home. When she sees him she tells him it's still his place. She hasn't divorced him, there aren't even any papers drawn up, and if he wants her, he can have her, because it's nothing special anymore. She has been broken for so long that if Joe thinks he can find redemption here, he is sadly mistaken. He is a fool.
He finds work as a welder and begins to find a routine, but the past steadily creeps over his shoulder. Years ago he was known for selling the best weed. A local dealer, Snake (in a blitzkrieg performance by director McKinnon) tracks him down and makes a threat: if you intend to sell your stuff, you're selling your stuff through me. Joe has no desire to go back to breaking the law, but he's not going to be thugged around either. Between these two characters follows an incredibly real fist fight, and later one of the goofiest (again: real) shootouts one can fathom.
The film is about trauma, and a need for reconciliation, and it's about heartache and pain and the need for sorrow to just go away. Sometimes with sorrow, it's like: enough is enough. Any way I can get rid of you, even momentarily, sure, I'd be glad to do that. The mystery of their little boy, that child they lost that night in the woods, is a memory that haunts Joe and Chrystal every day. He is gone, and nothing can be done about it, and where he went is a mystery, and yeah Joe -- it's all your fault.
In this hostile, menacing place where only the strong survive and the cops can't be trusted, this feels like Flannery O'Connor, or maybe 2010's Winter's Bone. There are ruthless people to avoid and a harsh wilderness all around -- the ragged setting heaps another layer on Chrystal's misery.
The incredible thing about this mournful little dirge is the symbolic redemption at the end of the misery. It's no happy ending, I'm not sure anyone here will live in happiness again. But a genuine stab at transformation seems to leap like a ghost from the Arkansas woods. And in more than one symbolic gesture we are reminded of why children grip our hearts and touch us so much:
A few quiet scenes of a little girl in the end give us pause at how precious childhood is. When we talk about wishing we were kids again, or think back to a time when things were innocent, we aren't just looking at some kid and hoping for her best, or even watching children's lives hoping they avoid all this pain. We're amazed at the thought of innocence itself, and that to a child, healing can come, and so quickly.
There is something necessary about watching babies and children, about remembering the beauty of inexperience. They remind us of safety, of purity -- of a place we'd like to go back to. They remind us that all is not lost.