SLING BLADE(director/writer: Billy Bob Thornton; screenwriter: from the story by Billy Bob Thornton; cinematographer: Barry Markowitz; editor: Hughes Winborne; music: Daniel Lanois; cast: Billy Bob Thornton (Karl Childers), Dwight Yoakam (Doyle Hargraves), J. T. Walsh (Charles Bushman), John Ritter (Vaughan Cunningham), Lucas Black (Frank Wheatley), Natalie Canerday (Linda Wheatley), James Hampton (Jerry Woolridge), Robert Duvall (Karl’s Father), Rick Dial (Bill Cox), Brent Briscoe (Scooter Hodges), Christy Ward (Melinda), Jim Jarmusch (Frostee Cream Boy); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David L. Bushell/Brandon Rosser; Miramax; 1996)
“Excellent character study of a mentally challenged person.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The auspicious directorial debut of country singer turned actor Billy Bob Thornton (“All the Pretty Horses”/”Daddy and Them”), who also stars in and authored the script (expanding George Hickenlooper’s acclaimed short Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade). The psychological drama is an excellent character study of a mentally challenged person, in the the same vein as Forrest Gump and Rain Man–but with a much superior lead performance. It has a cameo by Dead Man director Jim Jarmusch as the Frostee Cream boy. It falters somewhat because it goes on for too long and the ending was too predictable and schematic. The pleasure in the film is in its sharp eye for details, the nuanced understated performance by Thornton, the at times inspirational directing, and in its leisurely pace that offers some keen observations of people. It was filmed in Benton, Ark.
The middle-aged Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) gets released after being an inmate for twenty-five years from a state mental hospital, where he was incarcerated for murdering his mother and her young boyfriend after the 12-year-old caught them naked making love in the house. The now harmless looking man decapitated them with a sling blade.
We first see Karl listening to fellow inmate Charles Bushman (J. T. Walsh) rattle on to the good listener some sex-obsessed gory tales and then Karl is interviewed by a coed high school journalist in a dark room and he just tells his full story in his unique raspy voice without allowing for any questions. Upon his release, without any supervision, Karl tells the head administrator of the hospital, Jerry Woolridge (James Hampton), that he has learned his lesson and adds, “I reckon I got no reason to kill no one.” He takes the bus some twenty miles down the road and returns to the town of his boyhood, with his only possessions–three books, one of which is the Bible. Feeling lost in the world, Karl’s befriended by the adolescent Frank (Lucas Black), the son of a widowed mother, Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canerday), who works as a clerk in the local drug store. Meanwhile the hospital administrator uses his church friendship to get the mechanically gifted Karl a job repairing small engines.
Frank, needing a father figure, asks Karl to live in their garage, and he obliges feeling protective of the boy and his vulnerable mother who is in a bad relationship with a hard drinking redneck hot-headed bully, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam, country singer), who owns a small construction business. Mom’s best friend is her nerdy store boss, Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter), who is gay. The kindred spirit outcasts band together for protection from the abusive and taunting bully Doyle and the small-minded local gossips, but it ends in a Greek tragedy as Karl protects the family from violence with his own sense of justice.
The film is at its compelling best when spare, lean and mean.
REVIEWED ON 7/23/2009 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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