Southern comfort 

HIDING OUT: McKinnon as Randy in his film "Randy and the Mob."
  • HIDING OUT: McKinnon as Randy in his film "Randy and the Mob."

One would expect that a filmmaker's most logical move after winning an Oscar would be to take up residence on Easy Street. Ray McKinnon, however, ended up in Little Rock.

Considering McKinnon's stubborn determination to make his films his way, the decision might not be counter-intuitive. When his latest feature, “Randy and the Mob,” premieres at the Breckenridge Village on Oct. 2, that curious path to our state's capital city might lead him down a humbler red carpet, but it'll be lined with faces he can trust and lead the way to a film that he can truly call his own.

Three years ago, when McKinnon and his wife, Little Rock native Lisa Blount, sold their house in L.A., he discovered that they'd just sold a home they couldn't afford to turn around and buy. The realization led to a long period of soul searching. Where would he be in 10 years in L.A.? Although he could claim a handful of close friends, he really had no more roots in the place than he did when he arrived 10 years earlier. If his “life [was] unmanageable on a good day,” as he put it, why should he live it in a place so alienating and unrewarding? He began eyeing a big move.

Blount looked homeward, and he was inclined to agree. Though raised in small town Georgia, McKinnon had lived enough of his life in the big city to develop a taste for “arugula and imported olives.” Little Rock had both the comforts of home and arugula, as well as other advantages of city living, so the couple headed South. McKinnon's films had been pulling them in that direction for years.

McKinnon's Academy Award-winning short, “The Accountant” (2000), concerned itself with an investment in land that went beyond money. In the 42-minute short, two brothers seek the help of McKinnon's wily numbers-cruncher to save the family farm from imminent bankruptcy. The accountant, fueled by Pabst Blue Ribbon and an evangelical fire, goes to alarming lengths to help them, and along the way the brothers learn how heritage and a true connection with the place of their births can transcend the struggles of daily lives.

In the end, their mysterious (and hilarious) savior makes it menacingly clear that his sympathy lies with the land and with the way of life — not with making the land easier to plow or the life easier to lead.

That narrative provides a key insight into Ray McKinnon's approach to filmmaking. His career may have taken him West, but his sympathies always remained below the Mason-Dixon line. He is deeply invested in bringing the problems and concerns of his region to the big screen. Consequently, his first move after winning the golden statue wasn't to cash it in by signing up for the next Jackie Chan vehicle. Instead, he melted the thing down and poured his soul into financing another Southern feature. He found himself going door-to-door to sell a project he felt in his bones: “Chrystal.”

McKinnon shot “Chrystal” (2004) in Northwest Arkansas, signing up native son Billy Bob Thornton to play an ex-convict, Joe, who returns from the prison to a home he had broken long ago. Blount plays the title character, Joe's physically and emotionally damaged wife, who has never recovered from the police chase and car crash that landed her husband in the penitentiary and robbed her of her only child. Joe does his best to insinuate himself back into her life, but the lost child paralyzes them both. When he's framed for a drug deal gone bad, Joe flees to the woods and ends up haunting the rest of the picture, a living memory of the past they can never escape.



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