Sling Blade (1996)
Written & Directed by Billy Bob Thornton
One of the notions observed about the concept of Family at the end of the 20th century & especially in the 21st is that it is no longer the people whom you are born into but the people you choose to populate your life with. Sling Blade is a movie about that kind of a family, focusing on one particular member and how they navigate their role in the group. This film is the evolution of a one-man show into a short film and finally the feature film we review here. This story meant a lot of Billy Bob Thornton so much that he would devote so large a portion of his life to playing a singular character. He becomes lost in this character, and my wife didn’t realize it was Thornton until the end credits rolled.
Karl Childers (Thornton) is an intellectually challenged man recently released from the state mental hospital where he has been living since the age of 12. As a young boy, he witnessed his mother having sex with another man and assumed she was being attacked. He slaughtered the man with a sling blade used for threshing grass. Upon learning his mother was consenting to this, and already in a state of blind rage, Karl kills his mother too. As an adult, Karl understands that what he did was wrong and seeks a life of quiet simplicity. He’s helped by the mental hospital director to get a job as a tinkerer, fixing broken lawnmowers.
Karl meets Frank (Lucas Black), a 12-year-old boy whose mother, Linda, is stuck in a toxic relationship with the abusive Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Linda is friends with her manager at the dollar store, Vaughn (John Ritter), who informs Karl about the depth of Doyle’s abusive & hateful nature. Doyle adds Karl to his list of people to verbally mock and threaten, but the stoic man holds back from retaliating, focused on protecting his new friend Frank.
I don’t think Billy Bob Thornton has made anything quite this good since. Sling Blade is such a pure movie, refusing to be maudlin or overly sentimental. The film is presented as Karl would see the world, very flat and matter of fact. Music is used sparingly and often feels ambient rather than descriptive. Even the humor that pops up is sly and muted, reflecting Karl’s slight smirk when he does successfully joke with Frank. Thornton is focused on not insulting his audience with easy solutions to complex problems. He also doesn’t want to conform Karl’s worldview to our own; instead, he expects us to meet Karl where he is.
You will know where this story is going very early on in the story, once all the players have been introduced. This is not lazy writing, but instead, Thornton highlights how abuse is cyclical and happens repeatedly. Karl sees the reflection of himself in Frank and his home situation. This is made even more apparent as Karl reveals more about his family, and we eventually meet his father (Robert Duvall), an angry man lost in dementia sitting along in his decrepit house. Karl accepts his role in the events as the only one who can make things safe for Frank and his mother, even with all that costs him.
Surrounding Thornton are some great supporting performances with the late character actor J.T. Walsh bookending the movie as a deeply disturbed and sexually deviant patient at the state hospital. For such a small role, Walsh has a big impact on the movie. His leering, lip licking descriptions of acts he did to women, which I think the film implies are the figments of his imagination, an effort to intimidate or impress, and serve as a counterpoint to the sad submission to fate Karl exudes. The third act finds Karl knowingly getting those he loves to safety and preparing himself to do something that will send him back to the hospital for the rest of his life.