Mental institutions for the criminally insane can house some
pretty harmless looking characters. One such gentle soul is Karl
Childers (Billy Bob Thornton, a character actor in many shows including
ONE FALSE MOVE, TOMBSTONE, and DEAD MAN). Karl appears like he
wouldn't harm the proverbial fly. He just sits stoically staring out
the window as fellow inmate Charles Bushman (J. T. Walsh in a cameo
role) tells of renting a prostitute who turns out to be male. Nothing
Peaceful Karl is the lead of Miramax's SLING BLADE, Miramax is
billing as a "southern gothic tale." This is a small picture that
feels like it was originally a short story, and it is not easy to
characterize. I went to a special advance screening knowing nothing,
not even the name of the picture. If you like films where the acting
takes center stage, then SLING BLADE is the film for you. Calling it a
southern gothic tale works about as good as anything I could have come
up with. It reminded me somewhat of BEING THERE, RAINMAN, and other
movies, but it is fairly unique.
Besides being an actor, Billy Bob Thornton is an accomplished
screenwriter. He crafted the innovative scripts for ONE FALSE MOVE and
A FAMILY THING. In SLING BLADE, he does the script and, for the first
time, tries his hand at directing. The film, which won a standing
ovation at the New York Film Festival, has a single problem.
Thornton's pacing too often bogs down. Certainly, this is a film you
want to take leisurely, but he goes overboard on the slowness. The
acting, on the other hand, is so involving that one can easily overlook
this flaw. I'd give Thornton an Oscar nomination for best actor if it
were me, but I'm sure this obscure picture will be overlooked by the
members of the Academy. Thornton has the speech cadence, the physical
mannerism, and the overall presence of a southern hick with an IQ in
the low double digits.
"I reckon, I'm gon'na have to get use to lookin' at pretty
people," Karl tells Warden Jerry Woolridge (James Hampton) after a
plain looking girl from a high school newspaper interviews Karl before
he is released from prison. She can not understand why they are
releasing him since twenty-five years ago he killed his mother and her
lover with a sling blade. The warden shrugs and says he has served his
time, and since he has been ruled no longer insane, they have to let
Even though he is a killer, his gentle presence and slow walk
immediately wins the audience's heart. Karl finds the outside world
unbearably frightening. He goes to the Dairy Queen where the counter
help (director Jim Jarmusch in a cameo role) wants to know what Karl
wants. This is a tough question for Karl. You feel like crying for
the poor guy. Finally, he has Jarmusch just recommend something.
After Karl freaks out and returns to his prison home, the warden
gets him a job back in town working as a repairman for Bill Cox (Rick
Dial). In an ongoing subtheme, many of the sane people in the film,
like Cox's worker Scooter Hodges (Brent Briscoe), have less effective
smarts than Karl.
Karl goes to live with Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canderday) and her
son Frank (Lucas Black II from the TV show "American Gothic"). Their
life has been almost as traumatic as Karl's. Frank's father blew his
brains out with a shotgun, and his mother is dating an abusive redneck
named Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam).
Karl and Frank strike up a friendship, and Karl becomes the Daddy
Frank never had. The dialog between them is touching and reminiscent
of that from BEING THERE. At this point in the film, I had no idea
where the movie was going.
"You think I'm scared of you staying here? You're just a humped
over retard. ... Welcome to our humble house," Doyle greets Frank
when he comes to live at Linda's house. Doyle is so dumb and
prejudiced that he is easy to hate, but this is not the typical
overacted redneck part. Yoakam gives a highly controlled performance
of a guy so ignorant that he almost gets your sympathy until he opens
his mouth. Actually all of the characters are quite genuine. Even
Robert Duvall appears in an important cameo role as Karl's long absent
and abusive father.
John Ritter appears as Linda's coworker and friend Vaughan
Cunningham. Since he is one of the few openly gay people in the small
town, he is subject to much derision from Doyle. The irony is that
Karl, Vaughan, and Frank are all much more of a man that Doyle. Doyle
is little more than the shadow of a man.
Since Karl seems so serious about everything, people are convinced
he is some sort of a sage. At a coffee shop, Vaughan asks him, "You
seem like a thinker. You seem to always be deep in thought. So what
are you thinking right now?" After Karl's trademark pregnant pause, he
says, "I'm thinking I could take more of these po'taters."
Linda tells Karl she has invited her coworker Melinda (Christy
Ward) over the next day as his date for dinner and asks him what he
thinks about that. "I reckon I wouldn't mind a little supper." The
terse script has a poetic quality to it. It is touchingly humorous,
but I rarely laughed in the film. I guess I was so wrapped up in
feeling sorry for and worrying about my new friend Karl.
The cinematography by Barry Markowitz is naturalistic with the
warm glow of a few incandescent bulbs. The sets by Clark Hunter have
lower class southern homes down pat. The houses are clean but
cluttered with cheap furniture and tacky memorabilia. The music by
Daniel Lanois knows just when to switch to peaceful melodies. Even the
sound by Jeff Kushner has an extra serenity thanks to abundant use of
the southern minstrels - crickets. Technically, a well constructed
film for one that clearly had to survive on a fairly low budget.
Most films fad in our minds like the setting sun. I suspect SLING
BLADE will too, but I will long remember the lovely performance of
Billy Bob Thornton. Every halting movement of Karl's was touching.
>From the way he kept his mouth shut tight with his lower lip swallowing
his upper to the way he stared at situations trying to parse their
meanings to his delightful aphorisms, his acting was near perfect. I
can not imagine any other actor approaching the role in a more
convincing and captivating manner. An acting tour de force you don't
want to miss.
SLING BLADE runs 2:15. It is rated R for some profanity and one
scene of strong but off screen violence. There is no sex or nudity.
The film would be fine for teenagers. This is a tender show even given
its prejudice and overriding threat of violence. I recommend this
little picture to you and give it ***.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes