Sling Blade

Sling Blade (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

With a title like “Sling Blade” and with a plot involving a mildly retarded man who has since been confined in a mental institution for murdering his mother and her lover when was only twelve years of age, one expects the film to be suspenseful, thrilling, and violent. The opening scenes certainly point toward these destinations: the precise camerawork, the score, the foreboding lighting. Instead, the work, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, is a poetic rumination of freedom, of forgiveness, of love, of compassion, of good and evil, and of sacrifice. It is the kind of experience that lingers in the mind because just about every element comes across as authentic.

Thornton plays Karl with great empathy, truly one of the most original and memorable shoes I have had the pleasure to follow in a long time. The performer undergoes a complete transformation: the hunched posture, the contorted face sewing a permanent smile, the shifty and minimal eye contact, the raspy voice, the energy emanated when Karl must listen and be patient. Each time the camera fixates on the subject, especially when another character is talking down to him, even though the person may not be aware of the condescension, we are reminded of the monologue in the mental hospital when Karl speaks to a reporter hours before his release. He claims he no longer has reason to kill anybody. But we know the world is filled with cruelty.

Eventually he comes across a boy named Frank (Lucas Black who reminded me of young River Phoenix at times) whose mother (Natalie Canerday) is a manager at the dollar store. She has a boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam) who is violent, a racist, a homophobe, a drunk. When sober, it is apparent he thinks highly of himself simply because of his occupation, especially when compared to the other residents in their small, mostly poor, rural town. Due to the number of parallels between Karl’s tragic past and current life, we suspect where the story is heading. And yet the destination does not matter since the journey there is filled with surprising moments between people making genuine and surprising connections.

Take a look at the relationship between Karl and Frank. Despite about a thirty-year difference, the screenplay is not interested in typical and saccharine moments where one must learn from the other depending on the plot’s turns or contrivances. Already they are knowing, aware, and intelligent in different ways. Notice, for example, how Black plays Frank with a disarming maturity for a boy his age. Difficult life experiences are not expressed outright; they seep through conversations and bursts of violence. Karl and Frank are allowed to speak and listen to one another. They think with a certain level of vibrancy. Under Thornton’s patient direction, we feel we are a part of not only their conversations but their lives. Moments of great sadness and desperation are captured honesty, without irony.

Convincing and mesmerizing nearly every step of the way, “Sling Blade” is one of the great character studies about a specific man who must live in a place and time he is no longer a part of, no matter the effort and patience he puts into it. It is a sad story, certainly, but not for one second is it ever depressing because the subjects and the world they live in are so alive. Despite the picture’s running time of about one hundred fifty minutes, it is a breeze; I yearned to learn more about the people we had come to meet and how they would continue to live their lives.

3 replies »

  1. This is my favorite drama film of all-time, and my 2nd overall favorite film all-time. It is just great on so many levels. Did you JUST see this – or just recently release your review? The protagonist and antagonist here are both so superbly written and fleshed-out; the build-up is perfection, and spills over into the final act, and delivers on a slightly disturbing, but rewarding conclusion that feels cohesive w/ the rest of the script. This is one of the very few, most rare screenplays that I would say has “not a hair out of place”. the film is about as flawless as a filmmaker can create…

    Billy Bob Thornton delivers what I still deem to this day to be the single greatest performance of all-time. I am yet to see anyone top this; the reason being is that BBT needs no make-up to completely transform him into a totally different character. I love Heath Ledger’s Joker and would put that on the list of greatest performances of all-time, but Heath had some make-up to help w/ his transformation, where as BBT had none, and to be able to simply change the expression on your face and completely change the tone of your voice without any FX or anything and become a TOTALLY different being, in appearance and demeanor, is just astonishing to me.

    • Whoa. I didn’t you this was an all-time favorite of yours. And, yes, I just saw it. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t have sooner if my dad didn’t ask me to rent it through Netflix DVD. It was already on my list because I had added it following Siskel and Ebert’s review of it (when the site was still up with all those videos) and Ebert’s great write-up of it. I just kept pushing it down my rental list. I regret now seeing it sooner!

      You’re right: Thornton is nothing short of excellent in this. I cannot believe he did not win the Oscar. You’re spot-on on your assessment. He didn’t anything to transform. It was all from within and that’s impressive. There were times when I’d completely forgotten it was Thornton because he looked so different not just in looks but the whole essence, the energy he gave out.

      I want more actors to deliver high caliber work like this every year. Then the awards season would be a race for sure.

      • yes! I don’t even recognize BBT when I see Karl; it is the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen. Have you seen “Friday Night Lights”? It’s the sequel to this!! lol.

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