When asked about his directorial debut What Are You Thankful For?, Thomas Crudup told a reporter, “The only time I feel confident in my writing is when I’m writing something truthful, or when I’m taking something truthful, or something that happened to me, and scattering it through a prism of the bizarre,” which is a disturbingly accurate description of the film in question.
Known as Shanksgiving in foreign markets, What Are You Thankful For? opens a few weeks before Thanksgiving in Winslow State Penitentiary. A bus arrives outside the gates of the prison carrying freshly-convicted Joe Jefferies. Dressed in the customary prison blues, Joe looks beat; his eyes are sunk deep into his skull and his face is long and gaunt. Clifton Andrews (who also played escaped convict Darren Groverwood in the schlocky Flag Day) plays Joe with a quiet menace. We’re not quite sure how he ended up here (at first), but we know things weren’t supposed to go this way.
We watch Joe as he integrates into the thriving society of Winslow, learning the ins and outs of the community and trying to keep himself from running afoul of any of the prison’s more unsavory characters. Unfortunately, fate seems willing to push Joe into the path of disaster. In a series of somewhat contrived circumstances, Joe finds himself face-to-face with self-described prison king Ray Schneider (played with scene-chewing gusto by former Detroit Lions linebacker Darnell “Spud” Grady). Their first encounter is overflowing with tension, as the audience waits for someone to make the first move.
Crudup’s direction deserves high marks for its effortless, restrained quality. There are no fancy camera tricks or spastic editing that sometimes plague overwhelmed, first-time directors. Crudup seems concerned first and foremost with telling his story and he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of that.
After Joe’s initial run-in with Ray, he spends a good bit of the film’s first half hiding out from Ray’s thugs. There’s one particularly effective sequence set in the shower room where they catch up with Joe and try to rape him before taking him to Ray. Joe fights them off and ends up slamming one man’s face against a hot pipe, scalding his flesh. This, of course, does not sit well with Ray, who steps up his attempts to kill Joe.
As the film reaches its midpoint, we begin to learn of the crime that landed Joe inside prison. This portion of the film is littered with flashbacks and these are some of the most startling moments overall. They reveal who Joe really is and what he’s capable of, which definitely took me by surprise. The flashbacks seem to throw a new light on the entire first half of the film, and if this were a lesser movie, it might derail the whole thing. Somehow, though, Crudup and company manage to keep everything on track, even answering the question posed by the film’s title.
In the last quarter of the film, the two leads come together for their inevitable showdown during the prison’s Thanksgiving meal. Since these scenes are informed by the flashbacks that precede them, there’s a hint of what Joe has up his sleeve, but in the end, it was still quite a shocker. Even though Crudup was attempting to tell a cerebral, subdued story, he does have a little fun with the finale, using concertina wire in an unusual way and drenching his main actors in blood in the process.
When Crudup told the reporter that he employs a “prism of the bizarre,” he wasn’t just being clever. Crudup actually served time in prison for vehicular manslaughter, where he supposedly wrote the first draft of this story. Though Crudup has never come out publicly and said if any of the events in his script really happened, he’s said that jail was “the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to me and the absolute best. It got me to start thinking clearer and sharper.”
As strange as it is to say this, Crudup’s jail sentence was a blessing for cinema fans, because we got movies like What Are You Thankful For? and his genre-bending epics The Old Year and The New Year. This Thanksgiving, after you’ve gorged yourself on turkey and dressing, pop in this film and check out what Joe’s thankful for. Then ask yourself the same question.