Sling Blade (1996)
Sling Blade (1996)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 15 min.

Release Date: November 27th, 1996 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Billy Bob Thornton Actors: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall, Rick Dial, Christy Ward, Sarah Boss

 


 

A

wholly entertaining, consistently thought-provoking drama, “Sling Blade” marks the impressive directing debut of Billy Bob Thornton – in addition to a powerful lead performance and a heart-wrenching screenplay that earned him an Academy Award for Best Writing (based on his own previously produced short film “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” [1994]). The film is carefully paced, mysterious, attentive, and absolutely unsettling. The combination of an unnerving, Frankenstein-like protagonist, an innocent boy, and an abusive loose-cannon antagonist (a relentless Dwight Yoakam) explode onscreen in a staggering series of events that are both shocking and beautiful.

Life hasn’t been easy for Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton). As a child with mental retardation, he lived in a shed behind his parents’ house with little more than a hole in the ground to sleep in, a few blankets, and biscuits and mustard for food. His family wanted little to do with him and the children at school were cruel the few times he went, so his days were spent staring at the ground and walls of his makeshift dwelling.

At the age of 12, Karl caught the neighbor boy having sex with Mrs. Childers and savagely killed him – when he discovered that his mother wasn’t exactly unwilling, he killed her too. After serving a considerable amount of time in a mental institution, Karl is finally released as an adult. The doctors feel that he’s cured, but the unforgiving world awaiting him outside is destined to reunite him with his checkered past.

Perhaps it’s predictable as it steadily builds details and motives for the rattling climax. But it’s nevertheless constantly enthralling, investigating the rights and wrongs of a man who’s endured a horrendous childhood and a caged adulthood. His amending of past crimes with further wrongs is virtuous in his mind; like many movie monsters he is more misunderstood than actually evil – a product of terrible conditions both unavoidable and unjustly administered, but with a recognizable pathos. Through his prior brutalization he seeks a skewed justice that he believes can only be delivered with his own hands. The world is too big for Karl, filled with unfair decisions handed down by life itself and a plethora of uncertain choices – including an awkward romance, painful reunions, a promising new friendship, and a strained realization of purpose.

The genius of the script lies in Karl’s interactions with a colorful assortment of characters that put him in the center of audience sympathies. And at the same time, he also maintains a nerve-wracking level of the unknown. Adding in the innocent role of a child (Lucas Black as a surrogate little brother), his fragile mother (Natalie Canerday as an attractant of abuse), and her bitter boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam as drunkard Doyle Hargraves) presents temptation, aggravation, connection, and acceptance. Karl is an outsider trying to bridge the gap of humanity through a group of people with whom he can never really belong. It’s an iconic, sensationally cinematic performance by Billy Bob Thornton, supplemented by an outstanding supporting cast (also including J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, and Robert Duvall) and Daniel Lanois’ moving music to accompany frequent revelatory actions. “Sling Blade” may have a simple premise with themes that have been addressed before, but with masterful direction, affecting dialogue, and superb acting, it’s a heavy-hitting and unforgettable picture.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10