...a moving, poignant, humorous, chilling, and melancholic motion picture, with a bravura turn from its writer/director/star.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Years ago, before Billy Bob Thornton became a household name, a good friend of mine told me about him; said to watch for him; said he was one of the most down-to-earth actors he'd ever seen. I'd never heard of Thornton. I'd never seen the small films my friend told me about, things like "One False Move" (1992), which Thornton cowrote, "The Killing Box" (1993), "Trouble Bound" (1993), or "Dead Man" (1995). Nor had I ever seen the short film Thornton wrote and starred in, "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade" (1994).

Then came the breakthrough in 1996 with the release of his first directorial effort, the full-length feature "Sling Blade," a film Thornton also wrote and starred in, winning him an Oscar for Best Screenplay and a nomination for Best Actor. Now, everybody knows him. And the actor's versatility has proved my friend right on the money.

Practically everybody has seen or heard about "Sling Blade" by now, too. But the thing about the film is its sneaky similarity to "Psycho II" (1983). You remember how after twenty-three years of incarceration in a mental institution for murdering his mother, her lover, and several other people, Norman Bates was finally deemed sane enough to be released back into society, only to find that no matter how hard he tried to be good, trouble followed him everywhere. Well, Thornton's Karl Childers is such a person. In his youth he killed two people, his mother and her lover; he was institutionalized for it; and twenty-odd years later he is released back into the world, not without consequences. The difference is that while "Psycho II" was done primarily for shock, "Sling Blade" is done as straight human drama. Both films have their moments of light humor, to be sure, but it's obviously "Sling Blade" that comes off more realistically and, in the long run, more chillingly.

In honor of the film's tenth anniversary (it was made in 1995 and released in 1996), Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment provide it with a new, two-disc "Collector's Edition," containing what they call the "Director's Cut." However, Thornton calls it the "original cut," the version he made first, before it was abridged for theatrical release. This DVD set offers Thornton the opportunity to restore to the film about thirteen more minutes, which seems to me, if I may use the term, overkill. At 135 minutes, the theatrical version was already verging on slackness; at 148 minutes, the original version now seems to drag on forever. I would have personally preferred that Thornton made a shorter Director's Cut, one that tightened up the story line further; but what we get isn't too bad, in any case; and the movie's dedicated fans will love every added moment, I'm sure.

The movie begins with some back story, told by Karl to a journalism student (Sarah Boss) for her college newspaper on the day Karl is being released back into the community. Karl explains how he was raised in a shed in the backyard; how he seldom went to school because the other kids made fun of him for being simpleminded; how as a child he found his mother with her lover and in a rage killed them both with a Kaiser or sling blade (also known as a ditch bank blade). Now, his time in the hospital is up, and he no longer shows any homicidal signs. "Will you ever kill anybody again, Karl?" asks the reporter. "I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody," he answers. And with that exchange, the story is set up.

I can think of few other times in film when an actor has transformed himself so convincingly into a fictional character. Thornton almost literally becomes Karl Childers, and without appreciable makeup. It's his voice inflections and mannerisms; his bowl-cut hair; his slouching posture; his shambling gait; his odd, contorted facial expressions; and his baggy clothing that all contribute to a person unrecognizable as the actor Billy Bob Thornton.

The year before, 1994, Tom Hanks had accomplished on an emotional level something similar to this with Forrest Gump, but not on the same physical level. Interestingly, both actors managed to create believable people while elevating their mentally challenged characters to the status of mythic folk heroes. This was both a blessing a curse; the blessing being the screen endowment of such memorable and entertaining characterizations; the curse being the misconception that somehow the simpler a person is mentally, the more a person can better perceive the world and its problems. This is nonsense, of course, but the movies are, after all, make-believe; and sometimes it is fun to believe in such fictions, particularly if they are trying to make an metaphorical point.

Thus is Karl discharged into the real world, a place he has never known before. In his youth he was virtually locked away in a shed; and in all of his adult world he was locked away in a mental hospital. He has no friends and no relatives except a father who disowned him years before. He returns to his small Arkansas home town, yet he has nowhere to go.

The crux of the story is his friendship with a young boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black). In his childlike way, Karl befriends the lad at a Laundromat. By chance, the boy's father has died and he's looking for an adult father figure. Karl, a sweet and gentle man, merely needs a friend, and the two strike up a sweet and gentle relationship. The boy's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), offers Karl a place to stay in their garage, and a lawn-mower repair shop offers him a job.

Then come the complications. Without conflict, we have no story. The complication comes in the form of one Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), the mother's redneck boyfriend. The movie suggests that there is little real difference between someone who is mentally challenged and someone who is simply stupid, and the movie provides several good examples, notably Doyle, a construction worker who is far more certifiably wacko than Karl ever was. Doyle is a crude, ignorant, violent, narrow-minded, alcoholic bigot who hates most everyone, most especially young Frank. Naturally, he takes an instant dislike to Karl, too, and we can see from the outset of the picture where this business is going.

The movie is mainly a character study--of Karl, certainly, but of several other small-town types. One of these other major characters is Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter), a man living under cover as one of the few gay folks in town. He's a friend of the mother, and he soon becomes a friend of Karl, sensing in him a sort of kindred spirit, both of them being outsiders in the town, people different from the norm. Ritter makes a remarkable impression on the viewer not only because his character is so sympathetic and sincere but because it's the first time most of us realized what a good dramatic actor Ritter was, after his playing so many light, comedic roles all his life.

Other persons of note in the story: Character actor J.T. Walsh as a fellow inmate in Karl's mental hospital; character actor James Hampton as the head of the hospital; and Robert Duvall as Karl's father.

Weaknesses in the movie? Sure. They are few, but they are most assuredly present. I mentioned one already: the story line was too long and slow in its theatrical form and now it's even longer. As Karl says of the world, "It was too big." Fans will love it all the more; I didn't. I also mentioned the misapprehension that slow people are somehow better able to comprehend the real world; romantic twaddle, of course, but it's a good device for allegory and fable. Another: The head of the hospital, supposedly understanding of Karl's dilemma, releases him without the slightest idea where Karl will go or what he will do. In a comparable real-life situation, wouldn't there have been more forethought invested here? Then, too, the sheer number of good-ol'-boy types in the story seems rather excessive. And about Duvall: It isn't that he's wasted uttering only a couple of words in the movie; it's that he's too well known and too conspicuous to be as effective as he could be. But, perhaps most important, the film's ending can be anticipated a mile off, with Thornton explaining this concern away in his commentary by saying, "The movie is not about surprise; it's about watching how it all takes place." Kinda like the new "Star Wars," I guess. We know exactly where it's going, but it's all in the fun of getting there.

"Sling Blade" attempts and largely succeeds in presenting us with life-enhancing themes like the need for friendship and belonging; the importance of the father-son relationship; the significance of diversity in the world; and the simple necessity for peace and quiet and tranquility in one's daily existence. With a tour-de-force performance by Thornton; a fine supporting cast; a good, if overlong script; a haunting, if occasionally overwrought musical score; and some realistic location shooting, "Sling Blade" has become a piece of genuine Americana. The movie was a worthwhile recipient for a special-edition DVD set.

The movie is presented in a slightly truncated 1.78:1 ratio, only a wee bit less wide than its original 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio but better fitting a standard 16x9 widescreen television. It has been transferred to disc in anamorphic form at a reasonably high bit rate, neither of which seem able to make up for the master print's often soft focus. While some scenes are crystal clear, others are a tad blurry, fuzzy, with a touch of grain in darker areas. So, I guess it's kind of a wash. Fortunately, colors are deep and natural, making up for any of the transfer's other minor deficiencies.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound may simply be reproducing what is on the soundtrack, or the audio engineer may have fiddled with the frequency response, I don't know, but the music's bass is quite loud and overpowering in more than a few key scenes. Rather than intensifying the dialogue that it's supposed to be underlining, it distracts from it. Moreover, although the front-channel stereo spread is acceptably wide, the rear-channel surround information is at a premium, limited to the occasional chirping of birds and the faint reinforcement of musical ambiance.

The main bonus item on disc one of this two-disc special edition is an audio commentary with Billy Bob Thornton. As Thornton explains it, though, it's an unusual commentary because part of it was recorded back when the movie was made and part of it was newly recorded for the Director's Cut. So Thornton says that's why his voice may sometimes sound a little different. In any event, he not only remarks on the film in general, he tells us where and why the newly restored scenes appear, and he provides a generally useful and listenable set of observations, analyses, background information, and personal anecdotes. Thornton seems genuinely emotional about the picture, telling us it was "the best moviemaking experience" of his life. He also justifies the restored footage by saying, "We don't cut out parts of our day in real life, do we?" Fair enough. Then he concludes by admitting that some people will prefer the shorter theatrical version. Yes, like me.

Disc one also includes an introductory set of trailers for other BV titles; thirty scene selections; English as the only available spoken language; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The package is completed by a sixteen-page informational booklet and chapter guide.

Disc two contains a number of other bonuses, mainly singing the praises of the film and the filmmaker. The first item is a sixty-six-minute documentary, "Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood," divided into fourteen chapters, that uses interviews with family, friends, and former teachers to follow Thornton from his birth through his eventual creation of "Sling Blade." Billy Bob winds up seeming like a good and humble soul, ironically canonized by things like this overly reverential tribute.

After that is another documentary heralding Billy Bob's talents: "Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton," forty-three minutes long. That is followed by a roundtable discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, actors Dwight Yoakam and Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushell that goes on for twelve chapters and seventy-five minutes. Then, there a conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall, eight minutes; a conversation with Duvall alone, seven minutes; and a conversation with Thornton and composer Daniel Lanois, twenty-two minutes. It's a lot of talking, and only parts of these conversations are any more enlightening than what was revealed in the documentaries. Next, Thornton recreates his Childers' character in a three-minute segment called "The Return of Karl." Following this, "On The Set" takes us behind-the-scenes with "Billy Bob at Work," four minutes; "Doyle's Band: The Johnsons," two minutes; and "Doyle Gets Pummeled," two minutes. Then, there's "Doyle's Dead," a four-minute deleted scene, with an introduction by Thornton, that was supposed to have gone at the end of the closing credits but didn't seem appropriate after the film took on a more serious tone than Thornton had originally intended. Finally, there are three text reviews of "Sling Blade" by critics Richard Corliss, Stanley Kauffmann, and Anne Beatts.

Parting Thoughts:
There is no doubt "Sling Blade" is a moving, poignant, humorous, chilling, and melancholic motion picture, with a bravura turn from its writer/director/star. It accomplishes an awful lot that most movies don't even aspire to. Yet I'm not quite so sure it needed any more screen time to convey its simple story or advance its relatively basic themes. Nevertheless, the movie's ambling pace fits the demeanor of its main character, a man who is not used to getting anywhere fast. No harm done.


Film Value