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.