Sling Blade

Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Screenplay: Billy Bob Thornton
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton (Karl Childers), Dwight Yoakam (Doyle Hargraves), John Ritter (Vaughan Cunningham), Lucas Black (Frank Wheatley), Natalie Canderday (Linda Wheatley), J.T. Walsh (Charles Bushman)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1996
Country: U.S.
Sling Blade Blu-Ray
Sling BladeAs written and performed by Billy Bob Thornton, Karl Childers, the central character of Sling Blade, is one of the most fascinating, moving, and complex characters to come across a movie screen. A drawling, slow-moving and slow-thinking, but deeply felt man from Arkansas, Karl bears more than a few resemblances to Forrest Gump, who had just cleaned up at the Oscars two years earlier; however, unlike the comfortable simplicity and unflagging goodness of Tom Hanks’s character, Karl is not so easy. On the outside he appears to be a gentle soul, incapable of harming a fly, but in fact, he harbors a dark past of violence and is probably capable of doing it again.

When we are first introduced to Karl, he is about to be released from the state mental institution. He has been there for the last 25 years after killing his adulterous mother and her lover with the sling blade of the title. Speaking in his unique, deep throaty drawl, he tells a curious college newspaper reporter the whole story in stark, uncompromising terms, which Thornton (who also directed the film) captures in one of the film’s many bravura single long takes. While the story Karl tells is horrifying, it is also strangely touching because we start to understand this strange man and why he did what he did. We understand that he has thought a great deal about his past actions, and he has a strong sense of right and wrong.

Once returned to the outside world, Karl has nowhere to go but back to the small Arkansas town where he grew up. With help from the head of the state hospital (James Hampton), Karl gets a job working on lawnmowers at a small fix-it shop. He befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) and eventually moves into the garage behind Frank and his mother Linda’s (Natalie Canderday) house. Along the way we are introduced to several of the town’s residents, including Vaughan (John Ritter), owner of the dollar store where Linda works and a not-so-closeted homosexual.

At this point, it seems as if Karl has a chance of reentering society. Bill Cox (Rick Dial), owner of the shop where Karl works, is a friendly man who treats him well and respects his ability to fix engines. Despite his terrible past, he is treated with respect and quiet understanding by Linda and Vaughan, both of whom know what it is like to be outsiders, and he quickly becomes best friends with Frank, who is a bit shy and fragile and not very good at playing football with the other boys. The film has a great sense of generosity in this regard, as it is filled with characters who all have their flaws, but are fundamentally good people who are willing to see past Karl’s violent past and recognize a fellow human soul searching to find a place in the world.

But then we meet Doyle Hargraves (country singer Dwight Yoakam), Linda’s boyfriend. As Vaughan describes him, Doyle is not just an intolerant, drunken redneck--“He’s a monster.” However, just like Karl, Doyle is not as simple as we would like to make him. Yoakam, in his first substantial film role, brings an undeniable edge of humanity to this confused and angry man whose only means of relating to others is to belittle them. He can’t stand people who are different from him, which is just about everyone. To him, Frank is a weak, weird kid because he can’t play football, Vaughan is just another “fag,” and Karl is an annoying “retard.” His intolerance keeps him from understanding anyone, least of all Linda, and he ends up being abusive, both physically and emotionally. As Karl grows closer and closer to Frank’s family, we begin to realize that Doyle might just push him to the edge and bring out his inner violence once again.

Sling Blade is an extension of a 1994 black-and-white short film that Thornton wrote and starred in and was directed by documentarian George Hickenlooper. By expanding the film outside the walls of the state hospital, Thornton is able to fully engage his acute sense of time, place, and character, and he gives it the kind of pacing and attention to detail usually reserved for novels, which allows his characters to grow and develop. The fact that Thornton had several years to work on Karl’s character is greatly evident, as he completely inhabits the role; his posture, his walk, his seemingly vacant stare, his jutting jaw--everything he does with intricate precision that never feels like “acting,” but rather like “being.”

The rest of the actors are also superb, especially the late John Ritter. Although still best known for his days as the pratfall-prone Jack Tripper on the sitcom Three’s Company, Ritter brings to Vaughan a deep-felt honesty and confusion over his place in society. He is a gay man in an intolerant Southern town, and we understand how uncomfortable he must be. Natalie Canderday is also excellent as Linda, a woman whose life has been severely damaged and is struggling to put the pieces back together. Her first husband killed himself, and we can almost understand why she stays with a boor like Doyle despite his constant threats and the instability he brings to her life.

At its heart, Sling Blade is a Southern gothic tale of love and redemption that feels at every turn strikingly original. It has the kind of characters William Faulkner would have been proud to write about, and it creates and sustains an evocative mood that bears traces of the grotesque, but remains resolutely human. For a first-time director, Thornton is astonishingly assured, and even when he gives in to sentimentality near the end by giving Karl an emotionally stirring speech that we can believe he feels but would never be able to articulate so clearly, it is easy to forgive because the rest of the film is so measured and thoughtful, moving slowly and methodically to an ending we see coming long before it arrives, but still carries with it a powerful emotional charge.

Sling Blade Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by Billy Bob Thornton
  • “Mr. Thornton Goes To Hollywood” featurette
  • “Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton” featurette
  • “A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushell” featurette
  • “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall” featurette
  • “A Conversation with Robert Duvall” featurette
  • “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois” featurette
  • “The Return of Karl” featurette
  • “On the Set” footage
  • “Doyle’s Dead” deleted scene with introduction by Thornton
  • DistributorMiramax Films
    Release DateAugust 4, 2009

    With the exception of a few scenes that take place outside in the sunlight, most of Sling Blade is quite dark, which is how Billy Bob Thornton intended it. It is also largely devoid of primary colors (especially red, which Thornton says he only likes in movies about the Revolutionary War), so the color palette leans heavily toward warm autumnal shades of orange and brown. The new high-definition 1080p transfer on this Blu-Ray disc handles the film’s look quite well, with the additional resolution and improved black levels aiding particularly in the dark, murky scenes inside, some of which still look quite soft. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack is fine, giving the film’s eclectic music selection (which ranges from ambient synthesizers, to hillbilly country, to Jimi Hendrix-style guitar anthems) a crispness and sense of depth. The dialogue seems a bit low at times, but that is probably indicative of the intended sound mix.
    The Blu-Ray disc contains all of the same supplements that were included on the 2005 Miramax Collector’s Series DVD, some of which also date back to the 1997 Criterion laser disc. First we have a measured, thoughtful audio commentary by writer/director/star Billy Bob Thornton, who doesn’t always have a lot to say, but what he does offer is consistently well thought-out and informative. Thornton is also the subject of two documentaries: “Mr. Thornton Goes To Hollywood,” a 66-minute doc that traces his life from small town Arkansas to Hollywood (it includes interviews with John Ritter and Robert Duvall, as well as Thornton’s mother, his high school English teacher, and friends from home) and a 45-minute episode of “Bravo Profiles” that covers much of the same territory. There are a number of additional featurettes that bring together members of the Sling Blade cast and crew to discuss their experiences working on the film, including “A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushell,” “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall,” “A Conversation with Robert Duvall,” and “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois.” There is also some behind-the-scenes footage from the film’s production in the section labeled “On the Set,” which is broken down into three mini-featurettes: “Billy Bob at Work,” “Doyle’s Band: The Johnsons,” and “Doyle Gets Pummeled.” “The Return of Karl” is an amusing video piece in which Thornton briefly recreates his character on the set of Daddy and Them, and “Doyle’s Dead,” which is preceded by a video introduction by Thornton, is actually a two-minute deleted scenes that was originally intended to play at the end of the credits, but was ultimately cut because it would have been too jokey.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Miramax Films

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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