Sling Blade (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sling Blade, the directorial debut of actor/writer Billy Bob Thornton (who scripted One False Move and A Family Thing), is a fascinating examination of a damaged man's quest to make restitution for his past crimes. To a lesser extent, it also offers an atypical vision of the concept of "family" in modern society. Thornton has developed Sling Blade as a slowly-paced character study. Nearly every scene is designed to reveal something about one of characters rather than advance the minimalist story. The narrative is little more than a flimsy envelope -- it's the men and women who are sealed within that make Sling Blade worth watching.

The best acting in the entire motion picture is by Thornton himself. He plays Karl Childers, a "mentally challenged" man who has been incarcerated in the Arkansas State Hospital for the criminally insane since the age of nine, when he butchered his mother and her lover with a sling blade. As the film opens, Karl is being released from the hospital. According to the doctors, he has been cured. By Karl's own admission, he doesn't reckon he's got a reason to kill anyone else. But we in the audience aren't so sure. His rough, gravely voice is intimidating, and his nervous mannerisms -- constantly rubbing his hands together, uttering "uh-huh"s every few words, and never meeting anyone else's gaze -- do not inspire confidence. Is he still dangerous, or just the "gentle, simple man" others see him to be?

It's not an easy question, and Sling Blade doesn't insult us with an easy answer. Despite his low IQ, Karl is every bit as complex as any other human being -- if not moreso. There's a little bit of Forrest Gump in him. His mental simplicity makes him strangely compelling and likable, regardless of his bloody history and uncertain future.

Once Karl is out of the hospital, he goes to work as a mechanic in the small town where he was born (and where he committed his crime). He befriends a fatherless young boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), and, after meeting Frank's mother, Linda (Natalie Canderday), is invited to live in their garage. Frank is glad to have Karl around, not just because he yearns for a father-figure, but because he's afraid of Linda's often-drunk, abusive boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), and believes that Karl's presence will keep Doyle in line. Meanwhile, Linda's friend and boss, Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter), is concerned about a stranger living with Frank and Linda, and decides to keep an eye on the newcomer.

It could be argued that the ending is predictable, but I think "inevitable" is a better word. The audience sees the resolution long before any of Sling Blade's characters do, but that's because we're more removed from the situation than they are. The film builds to a perfectly-fitting, climactic moment. The key scene is not overplayed, nor are the ramifications.

When we first meet Karl in Sling Blade's prologue, he is a strange, sinister figure recounting his history to a local high school newspaper reporter. As we get to know him, however, we come to understand the depth of his personality, and the manner in which personal tragedies have formed his character. By bonding with Frank, Karl sees a path to redemption, a way to salve the wounds inflicted by his two long-ago misdeeds (the double murder and an equally horrifying crime that he was an accomplice to). In the process, he illustrates how much more there is to being a father than supplying sperm and applying a "firm hand". Karl seeks to save Frank the way his own father was unable to save him.

While Thornton's performance is obviously the standout, there are a number of noteworthy turns by supporting actors. Lucas Black and Natalie Canderday are both believable, and John Ritter is surprisingly effective playing against type as an effeminate homosexual. Dwight Yoakam goes a little over-the-top as the despicable Doyle, but that's the nature of the character. Sling Blade also features cameos by some impressive names: Robert Duvall (Karl's father), J.T. Walsh (a fellow inmate at the hospital), and Jim Jarmusch (an ice cream salesman).

Sling Blade runs for a little longer than it needs to, and there are a few scenes that border on being too cute (such as one where Karl's "date" from the previous evening gives him flowers), but, in general, it's a fine motion picture. Karl is sufficiently interesting to hold our attention for more than two hours, and, if the resolution of his dilemma is obvious, watching him arrive at it makes Sling Blade worthwhile. Billy Bob Thornton has done some interesting things with this film; his next project should be worth the wait.

Sling Blade (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1