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As far back as Night of the Hunter and as recently as Undertow, the swamp-Southern-hillbilly-gothic flick has been a hardy genre that seems to survive the decline of drive-ins, improvements in dental care, the rise of fuel-injected engines and the encroachments of McMansions and Wal-Marts. Opening this Friday is Chrystal, another swamp-flick that stars Billy Bob Thornton. Nine years after he became a star by launching into a monologue about what some folks call a sling blade, Thornton returns to the Arkansas hills to play a lead role in another actor's film. Thornton is Joe, an ex-con who returns home to win back his wife Chrystal. While Chrystal grieves for their dead child, Joe's old friends want him back in the marijuana-running business even as they spread nasty gossip about Chrystal's sexual activities in his absence.

Written and directed by Ray McKinnon, and co-starring McKinnon's wife Lisa Blount as the title character, Chrystal bears the hallmarks of the vanity project. Characters make knowing but unlikely references to Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, and the actors get to play damaged humans with exaggerated physical tics for which there are extended and indulgent close-ups. And there also are good scenes of fighting and fornicating.

McKinnon and Co.'s attention to the Arkansan ambience is deeply felt and perhaps the best thing about the film. A couple of tourists arrive--they're the obligatory musicologists from the big city--and do little except supply us with another handicapped character, a black and blind scholar. Better is the brief appearance by Harry Dean Stanton as the locally famous guitar picker (the music of Drive By Truckers is heard elsewhere on the soundtrack).

There's an admirable attention to the Arkansan ambience in Chrystal, and the film also has the agreeable lassitude of the 1970s cinema. But Thornton's increasing tendency to underplay his roles proves fatal here--he truly becomes the Man Who Wasn't There.

Chrystal opens this Friday

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