Yeah, I reckon it's time for me to review Sling Blade, MMMM-HMMM! Of course by now it's a classic, but it's a classic worth a second look. Sling Blade is the story of a not-too-bright-guy being released from a mental institution where he was committed for murder decades earlier. Karl Childers has to adjust now to life outside, trying to take care of himself and trying to handle injustice... not even the bright can handle that sometimes. Much of this is nature versus nurture, as we discover during Karl's journey, and the concept of garbage-in-garbage-out echoes through some of the more tense scenes. In essence, Sling Blade is a well acted, directed and written (all by Billy Bob Thornton) character study of a simple and innocent human being involved in a not-so-simple, not-so-innocent real world that's too big for him! Make no mistake, although all the violence takes place off screen and there is no nudity and profanity from only one character, this movie feels free to pluck some fruit off of the sickness tree, puree it and feed it to you.
Our film opens in a Southern institute for the criminally insane where two Journalism students arrive to interview Karl Childers. The interview essentially sets up just about everything you need to know about Ol' Karl, from the food he likes to the reason he's in, to the reason he's getting out, to how much he's learned about right and wrong. What could be chalked up to a cheap trick is pulled off well by Thornton's acting and nearly edit-free recitation of his quirky lines. Certainly the effect of this isn't terribly surprising as this film is based on Thornton's own play, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. While not all of this work could be limited to a stage (as, say the events of Glengarry Glen Ross could) but the pedigree of this film is easily seen, and I'll be horn-swoggled if it doesn't work, MMMM-HMMM!
What follows is Karl's attempts to fit in with friends and coworkers in a world he hasn't really been a part of since he was about twelve years old (he's past his fortieth birthday in this film, presumably). A Savant with fixing things and still able to relate to young people, Karl finds work fixing lawnmower engines and befriends young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black from The X-Files: Fight the Future)! On the way through his multi-faceted and inevitable journey Karl becomes closer and closer to Frank and becomes entrenched in the lives of Frank's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her monstrous boyfriend Doyle played by a very menacing Dwight Yoakam! The scenes, however, are stolen by the great John Ritter who plays a Northerner transplant to the area named Vaughan Cunningham! It's true that Ritter (a co-star of Thornton's on TV's Hearts Afire) is always a great actor, but here he plays an openly gay man in the midst of bigotry with such dignity and subtlety that he almost gives Thornton's Homicidal Forrest Gump a run for his acting dollar!
Truly, though, all the acting is pretty damned good! Yoakam is an underrated actor with a great ability to portray a silent menace (check out Panic Room for more of this). Thornton as director is able to portray, with class and taste, the terror of domestic violence and the almost Stockholm Syndrome effect it can have on families! Yeah, Doyle's a monster, but he plays good Rockabilly!
The best part of this movie is how, like a stage play, this drama is fed by Dialogue more than anything else. It's easy to see how this became such a classic not based on visuals or action, but on pictures pained by words. Sure we could have had detailed flashbacks of the scarring childhood of Childers, or we could see brutal detail of the things that made him who he was at twelve and shaped who he is at forty, but words alone paint this picture in a much better and more dramatic way than a flashback ever could. Karl Childers' past is detailed in Thornton's monologues or dialogues with other characters, most notably and shockingly during his confrontation of his father (Robert Duvall in a brief, yet powerful cameo).
For all the greatness that this movie has to offer, it's not quite seamless. For example, while much of the time Thornton (a Southerner himself) portrays people of the South as legitimately as possible there are more than a few concessions to the "Southern Caricature" for those in the audience who want to laugh at Southerners. Are southerners really like this? Oh, I dunno, man! Further, it's a shame to say that the ending was very predictable. While it was a delight to see, and the ending was definitely well directed, acted and written, I have to say it was easy to see, and pretty much inevitable.
In Thornton's defense, I have to say that at no time to my eyes did this seem like the effort of a first time director! While he was not a beginner as an actor or writer this was his first directing effort and damn he's good! As writer, actor, director... the whole enchilada, Thornton understands Karl Childers and portrays him in a sympathetic and realistic manner from his hand wringing (a cue to his psychosis) to his vocal mannerisms to his confused but never ambiguous morality! Karl, like Sling Blade on the whole, is remarkably complete and great to watch!
Sling Blade is surprisingly touching, if slightly predictable, and is an all around great film to which I award Four Stars out of five! It's almost impossible not to feel for old Karl, and I still do... even if I am jealous of old Billy Bob for the whole Angelina Jolie thing! You'd be hard pressed to find a better movie of this kind or more attention to detail in a Hollywood film! In the Easter Egg Category... None other than independent film director Jim Jarmusch has a cameo as the Soda Jerk at the Frostee Cream where Karl first goes to eat. What a great nod to Indie fans having the director of Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and Dead Man popping up in a cameo! Wait... at least I think this is a cameo! You know, Independent Film Makers don't always make incredible amounts of money... maybe Jarmusch is moonlighting as a fry-cook to make ends meet until the next deal!
What did Farina see in that scene where Karl scrapes the inside of the mustard jar to get the mustard for his stupid bisgcuits? Who cares?
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