Sometimes it takes a full-length feature film to do the trick. "Sling Blade" (1996) virtually launched Billy Bob Thornton's career, even though he played the same role of Karl Childers in a 25-minute indie film version two years earlier, and before that acted the part onstage. In all three cases, Thornton wrote the play/screenplay as well, and his third time was indeed the charm. He won an Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. For that, Thornton owes a debt to famed director Billy Wilder for giving him the tip that started it all. Thornton, who at the time was a struggling actor unable to find enough parts, served Wilder in a restaurant and the director told him to turn writer and write a part that would showcase his not-so-terribly-good looks. But there's plenty of debt to go around, actually, with Thornton also crediting his Hot Springs, Arkansas upbringing, his less-than-stellar performance in school, and his mother--all of which perhaps account for how honest "Sling Blade" feels, and how it subtly explores issues of manhood and social acceptability.
"Sling Blade"--which John J. Puccio called "a piece of genuine American" in his DVD review--tells the story of Karl Childers, a mentally impaired man whom we first meet in a state hospital for the criminally insane. Badgering him with a despicably lecherous story is a sexual predator (J.T. Walsh), but Karl just sits there, as if numb to it all. The scene invites speculation, and one of the main journeys of this film is the journey that viewers take as they draw varied conclusions about a character who becomes more complex and surprising as the movie progresses.
Karl has been in the state hospital since he was 12 years old, put there after he killed a man whom he thought was raping his mother. And when he found out that his mother was enjoying herself, he killed her too. If this were Mississippi instead of Arkansas you'd swear that Karl was part of William Faulkner's Snopes or Bundren clans, because this poor fellow grew up in a family that was pure Southern Gothic. Because he was "slow," he was raised in a dirt-floor outbuilding by a father who had so little respect for life that when Karl's mother gave birth prematurely to a baby boy, he traumatized Karl further with his reaction to the baby.
Institutionalized for the rest of his youth and all of his adulthood, Karl, who's only 37 but looks and feels older, is suddenly deemed "well" by the hospital administrators and is scheduled to be released. Before that, we get a "Silence of the Lambs" moment when a college journalism student is instructed by her teacher to get an interview with this killer. The head of the hospital, Jerry Woolridge (James Hampton), tells Karl it would be good for him to do the interview, because it would ease him into interaction with other people. But Woolridge cautions the journalist that no pictures will be allowed, because cameras spook Karl, and that she's not allowed to ask any questions. It could upset him. And so she sits in a classroom in the hospital, waiting.
Before Karl is brought into the room, Jerry turns off the bright overhead light and only turns on a gooseneck desk lamp near where Karl will sit. In this strange setting Karl tells his story with chilling matter-of-factness--about the scythe or "sling blade" he used to kill them--after which the young woman breaks the rules of the interview to ask a question. And it's a lulu. "Will You ever kill anybody again?" she asks--a question that's on the viewer's mind as well. And a reaction shot that shows Jerry's apprehensive expression answers the question for us. Anything is still possible, whether he's been declared "well" or not--especially when he says things like "I reckon I'm gonna have to get used to lookin' at purdy people, uh-huh." And hey, it was Anton Chekhov who said if you have a gun in a story, it should go off . . . otherwise, why include the gun? So you know at this point that something is going to happen later in the story, and as the plot unfolds you even begin to realize very quickly who the victim might be. But as Thornton says in his commentary and one of the bonus features, this isn't a movie about surprise. It's a character study that still manages to shock us, even if we aren't surprised.
When he's released, Karl says he wants to return to his hometown, and Jerry uses his influence to convince a local repair shop to give him a job and a place in the back to sleep. There's a difference between being slow and being simple, and Karl is certainly no simple man. He has a knack for fixing engines and it begins with logic. When one lawn mower is brought to him because it "won't run," the first thing he does is check the gas level. "No gas," he says, and his boss praises him for starting with the obvious before jumping in and taking the whole engine apart. It's but one example in the film of how Karl may be deemed a "retard," but he's not as stupid as many of the people in this small town. But I don't want to overly simplify what this film has to say about small towns, because that's as complicated as Karl.
"Sling Blade" is indeed a piece of Americana more than it is a "Silence of the Lambs" he-killed-once-and-he'll-kill-again story. It's a slice of southern life, and Thornton used southern actors to keep it real. The focus is on Karl trying to fit in, and it all starts with a chance meeting with a young boy named Frank, who's trying to lug more bags of laundry than he can handle. Karl helps, and it's the beginning of a friendship. Frank (played by Lucas Black, who reminds you a little of a young River Phoenix) likes the way Karl talks, and Karl likes the way he talks. It's code for what you see is what you get, and we come to find out that each fills a need that the other has felt. In no time at all Karl is invited to the house, where Frank's reluctant single mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) eventually asks him to stay--this, despite the violent objections of her abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), who also objects to her friendship with her gay boss, Vaughn (John Ritter), and isn't too fond of her "wimpy ass kid." The addition of the gay character really adds depth, because it creates a parallel pariah and makes the story more than just a tale of a "retard," as Doyle continues to call him to his face. As Karl interacts with people, "Sling Blade" invites comparison, and Karl tends to come out favorably--especially in an exchange with his father (Robert Duvall).
Barry Markowitz's cinematography is compelling and at times exquisite, while Thornton's direction is equally accomplished, except for a reluctance to trim scenes so they say and do what they have to. "Sling Blade" runs 135 minutes, and cutting 15 of those minutes would only have made the film stronger. Some of the courtship scenes between Karl and a woman who works at the dollar store add more charm than substance, for example. Otherwise, Thornton has crafted a minor masterpiece, which explains why a film reportedly shot with just under $900,000 took in $24 million. "Sling Blade" is an intelligent movie that beats with the heart of an indie film, with details and characters remaining more important than action or direct exposition. Throw in some pretty terrific performances (Thornton received an Oscar nomination) and you've got a memorable movie.
"Sling Blade" is rated R for "strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior."
For a film that was shot on the cheap 13 years ago, "Sling Blade" looks pretty good in 1080p, but it's nowhere near the quality of some of the best Blu-rays. Colors are accurate and black levels are fine, but detail does tend to get lost in shadows and low light, and there's a thin layer of film grain throughout that makes the film look just a little soft. It's not the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, though, because I saw no visible artifacts and certainly no DNR or edge enhancement. "Sling Blade" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
There isn't much of a spread across the front speakers, nor much rear-speaker action in he featured English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. Though the film is mostly dialogue, it's also heavily atmospheric, and I would have hoped for more ambient sound in the rear speakers, and a richer bass. Then again, this was shot with a low budget. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 is offered as an alternate audio option, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
It's true that Thornton wrote, directed, and starred in "Sling Blade," but I found the bonus features to have an uncomfortable "all about me" feel. Included are two profiles: a 43-minute Bravo Profile on Thornton that features interviews with friends like Duvall and ex-wife Angelina Jolie, interspersing clips with the usual bio stuff. Then there's also a 67-minute bio called "Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood" which is presented in Hi-Def (1080i) and offers interviews with his mother, Duvall again, and more family and friends. The best part are the old family photos included here, and there are some doozies of Thornton in high school and with his garage band.
More Thornton on the commentary track, which finds the writer-actor-director talking mostly as a director but occasionally putting on one of the other hats, as when he talks about the importance of video playback to him as an actor so he could pull back and see what the other actors were doing in relation to him, since he didn't have that director's perspective. He calls "Sling Blade" a "movie made for nothing, right from our hearts" and says he made it for his mother and a few friends, and dedicated it to his late brother, who liked the character Karl so much that he'd ask Billy Bob to do the voice over the phone with him. Though the commentary is thoughtful and measured, there isn't much emotion except when Thornton talks about breaking down in the scene where he has to say goodbye to his little friend, Frank. It's an average to slightly above-average commentary.
I was less enthusiastic about the remaining bonus features.
A roundtable discussion with Thornton, Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushnell is conducted in a dining-room setting, with the group swapping stories about this film and their lives in Hollywood for roughly 75 minutes. Like the film, this feels a little long, and there are moments when you think you're going to hear something outrageous and then they laugh and back off and you realize you've just witnessed what will remain a private joke unless you access a copy of the shooting script.
"A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Daniel Lanois" zeroes in on the composer's use of music in the film, with the pair talking about scenes that we get to see (and hear) again. But someone else could have conducted this interview, just to give us a Billy Bob break. He's everywhere on this disc!
Thornton again in "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall," which only runs eight minutes--one of the features we wish were longer. The two men clearly have the kind of bond that Frank and Karl had, so it's interesting that they played antagonists in this film.
And Thornton again in three behind-the-scenes snippets that run under seven minutes total and show the director breaking character to offer instruction and then getting back into character again, plus footage of the band rehearsing and an early take of Frank throwing stuff at Doyle. This one felt like a tease to me, because I would have liked to have seen more behind-the-scenes footage.
Finally, Thornton introduces a four-minute deleted scene ("Doyle's Dead"), and the lone Thorntonless bonus feature is a seven-minute "Conversation with Robert Duvall."
There's a lot here, and I picture different people responding to different things. It's almost a something-for-everyone presentation, with the understanding that not everything's going to be appreciated or watched.
"Sling Blade" is worthy of the reputation that preceded it. Thornton offers a subtle, thoughtful script, generally sensitive direction, and an understated performance, uh-huh. And what could have been sensationalized was thankfully downplayed. In the commentary, Thornton says that "Sling Blade" was "the best moviemaking experience of my entire life," and it's not hard to see why. Everything comes together in this film in a way that makes it movie-magical.