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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.
The team at McKinnon's production company, Ginny Mule Pictures, barnstormed the South, but “Chrystal” never truly found an audience in America, though it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and screened successfully all over Europe, where Blount won a well-deserved best actress nod from the Stockholm Film Festival.
Uncowed and enjoying his new digs, McKinnon forged ahead on an utterly different project. “Randy and the Mob” couldn't stray further from its predecessor's dour metaphysics, though the film maintains the gentle interpretation of character that gave “Chrystal” such raw power. Shot on the outskirts of Atlanta in a small town called Villa Rica, it follows the travails of the hapless Randy as he strives to maintain a number of harebrained business schemes. After chancing one bad loan too many, Randy ends up in bed with the mob.
To produce, McKinnon once again turned to his indefatigable wife and his longtime partner Walton Goggins, both of whom have substantial roles in the picture. Blount turns in another striking performance as Randy's depressive wife, a baton-twirling instructor with carpal tunnel syndrome, and Goggins plays an unusual mobster sent to take advantage of Randy's various business holdings — a kind of guru with a gun. (Some folks might think he's a little touched. Goggins' performance is as singular and as weird as that of Thornton in “Sling Blade.”)
McKinnon himself pulls double duty, playing Randy and Randy's gay brother, Cecil. One always expects such a stunt to be an actor's showcase, a larger-than-life feat of transvestite prancing. But though “Randy and the Mob” features its share of cross-dressing, McKinnon maintains a believable restraint throughout. He achieves the illusion of twinhood through small and sensitive gestures rather than grandiose personality tics and bouffant hair-dos. As a result, Cecil conjures more than a generic homosexuality. He's the kind of conservative gay man likely to remain living in his small hometown, regardless of the obvious drawbacks.
The film is peopled with a who's who of what's-his-names, character actors successful enough to be recognizable but who are in the background of celebrity: Bill Nunn, Brian Briscoe, Tim DeKay and Paul Ben-Victor. Most of the best lines go to this crew of old pros. McKinnon says he knew quite well that if he “was going to play twins, [he] better let the other people shine.” He wrote the part of Wardlowe Gone for Nunn, a longtime friend, and the actor's performance is a masterwork of painfully slow movement combined with perfect timing. DeKay, as Cecil's indignant boyfriend, gives the almost-too-serious final scenes air enough to breathe with the most well-crafted comic turn of the picture.
And then there's Burt Reynolds. His presence is a kind of blessing, a visitation from a forefather of Southern cinematic manhood. McKinnon had met him on the set of “The X Files” and given him a copy of “The Accountant” long before it garnered the Oscar. Reynolds loved it, and McKinnon promised to write a part for him.
Another Southern legend was involved in the film, and the credits carry a dedication to him.
McKinnon wrote “Randy” before he made “Chrystal,” and he knew it would be his next project. When the head of Capricorn Pictures, Phil Walden, proclaimed his love for “The Accountant,” McKinnon sold him on “Randy.” Walden, a music industry legend who co-founded Capricorn Records and discovered both Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers, put his full support behind the project. McKinnon had found a kindred spirit, someone eager to help him finance his risky films. But soon after production wrapped, Walden lost a long battle with cancer.
Once again on its own, Ginny Mule Pictures has put together a strenuous circuit of premiere dates and screenings in Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Fayetteville, Tulsa and Oklahoma City over the next two months. McKinnon and Blount have started a blog on the film's website to chart the tour, and they're in negotiations with Little Rock's Renaud brothers to produce a documentary about the life of this truly independent film.
It's a Sisyphean, grass roots effort, but one that McKinnon hopes will catch fire. He considers the event in Little Rock a good start. He already enjoys support from the Chamber of Commerce, and he swears that the post premiere event at the Clinton Library will be a highlight of his life, quick to attribute any success to being in a place “that likes to see their own do well.” And if he does indeed do well, he's already got plans for an intriguing new project: An adaptation of the William Gay short story, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” starring Andy Griffith. With any luck, that humble red carpet in front of the Breckenridge Village might go on forever.