Sling Blade

There is that rare moment when the lights go down and cinema magic happens; this film is one of them. The journey which begins with the heart- wrenching story of Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) as he tells of the gruesome murders he committed as a child (while we almost imperceptibly hear his heartbeat in the background) will leave no one untouched by the time his entire story is revealed. Very much like life, it has twists and turns without any obviously predictable events. There is humor, compassion, and friendship tied up in this tight little bundle that will grab you and take you, as few films do nowadays, through a catharsis that knocks the hell out of you.

Sling Blade
© RCV Film Distribution

Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) is a mildly retarded man who suffered severe punishment at the hands of his fanatically religious parents. Responsible for a double homicide, including matricide, he is only now about to be released from the institution that has confined him for twenty-five years. With trepidation and a few initial minor snags, he quickly adapts to the people around him and becomes an accepted member of his new community.

Although slightly retarded, his insights and understandings are often clear. His perceptions are less confused than some might believe and his conclusions often more direct and quickly drawn those of someone with rote- learned patterns of behavior. Karl reacts more instinctually than most, but often responds after deep consideration. He believes in justice and righteousness, and comprehends most of what is written in the bible.

Walking alone down the road without any particular destination, he meets Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a young boy who readily befriends him. Frank convinces his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) to let Karl live with them. Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter), Linda's gay employer, has some reservations concerning the new tenant, but after a private conversation with Karl, decides that there is no need to worry. Karl has also managed to build up a reputation as some kind of a whiz in the shop where he works as repairman. Suddenly, he not only finds himself surrounded by friendly and well-wishing acquaintances, but also accepted personally in a way he never had the opportunity of knowing as a child. He becomes, in a special way, member of a caring extended family.

The only problem in this raw-edged pastoral setting is Linda's boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam) who is not only a hateful, bigoted, vicious, narrow-minded alcoholic, but a woman-beater to boot. Hargraves bounces back and forth between Mr. Nice Guy and The Devil Incarnate, becoming more and more despicable each time his negative side reveals itself. Karl, who has always felt very close to young Frank, realizes, as situations continue and Doyle's violence persistently escalates, that the boy's life is in danger and desperate need of protection.

Karl's odd posture, strange appearance and inexpressive way of talking to which we are introduced at the beginning of the film are all but forgotten by the end. The sensitive relationship between the viewer and the screen persona is developed with such great care and insight by director Thornton that it delivers an unexpectedly strong impact and, as a result, breathtakingly becomes a rare movie experience. One of the most intimate moments in the film occurs when Karl sits in the darkness of the woods with Frank (Lucas Black) and "rambles" on about his brother's death. At such moments, revelations are made where the relationship between the heart of the man and his mind become more perceptible.

Billy Bob Thornton has so adeptly dealt with all three tasks of writer, director, and lead actor that one cannot but sit in amazement at the work he has created.

Undoubtedly destined to become classified as one of the cinema's classics, one can only conjecture as to why this did not become the film that swept the board for the 69th annual Oscars. Could it be that the film was too "controversial" for those who possess voting power? If this is the case, it is ironic that a romantic film in which a promise of love is responsible for the death of masses becomes more socially acceptable than a more private and intimate drama in which an unspoken promise of love, coupled with an act of protection, results in tragedy on a smaller scale. Without such comparisons, intentions are thrown to the wind, understanding of human relationships deteriorate and murder becomes more acceptable in one form than another. In the cases at hand, it is obviously considered more pleasing for an audience to see what and whom they will sacrifice for mutual love than to explore the more universal depths of an outsider figure whose insight, compounded from a lifetime of sorrow and suffering, brings him to a self- sacrificing deed. Pre-set standards often make it difficult to decipher what truth is and what the world is about.

Superb points for everyone involved.


© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett