Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray

Back

SLING BLADE

           

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, March 5, 2021

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Miramax is giving a new Blu-ray upgrade to ‘Sling Blade’ the film that put Billy Bob Thornton on the map with a characterization that’s unlike any other he’s done. Or that anyone else has done either. My review was published in the Deseret News on Feb. 14, 1997.

 

Uneven, quite profane in places and chilling in its no-nonsense, straight-forward approach, "Sling Blade" is also a singularly brave and even startling acting piece from writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton, who landed surprise Oscar nominations for best actor and best screenplay.

 

With a quiet, haunting quality that is unusual in movies these days, "Sling Blade" is the kind of picture that stays with you long after you've left the theater.

 

Thornton has set his story in the South, though the precise location is never made known, and he also plays the lead character, a slow-witted 40ish man who committed murder at the age of 12.

 

As the film opens, quiet, hulking Karl Childers (Thornton) is staring out a window of the hospital where he has been confined for some 30 years. Another inmate, Charles Bushman (J.T. Walsh), approaches him and begins relating in graphic sexual detail some of the experiences that led to his own incarceration. (In the end, this proves to be a wraparound device designed to tell the audience more about Karl than Charles.)

 

           

 

    Billy Bob Thornton, left, Lucas Black, 'Sling Blade' (1997)

 

Karl is about to be released after having been "cured," diagnosed as unlikely to kill again. But before he leaves, Karl agrees to talk with a student reporter about his crimes. In a lengthy, riveting monologue — a major highlight of the film — Karl explains that he grew up an abused and neglected child.

 

He also reveals the nature of his crime. At age 12, the young, retarded Karl saw the town bully on top of his mother in their home. Misinterpreting the act, he killed the man with a sling blade. Then, upon discovering that his mother was a willing participant, Karl killed her as well.

 

Upon his release, Karl, who has never been outside the hospital as an adult, heads to his nearby hometown, wanders around for a time and then returns to the hospital asking to be re-admitted. But the kindly caretaker (James Hampton) explains that Karl will have to return to town and try to adjust. He also helps Karl get a job at a local fix-it shop.

 

Soon, Karl has bonded with young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a boy whose widowed mother (Natalie Canerday) has a mean-spirited, bigoted, abusive boyfriend (played by country singer Dwight Yoakam).

 

           

 

You can predict the rest, as Karl sees a situation that parallels his own youth and finds protective feelings for the boy welling up. But will he be able to help resolve the situation without resorting once again to violence?

 

As a director, Thornton uses a simple, static storytelling technique, relying heavily on his actors to set the tone. And the main actor, of course, is Thornton himself, who is in virtually every scene.

 

But his supporting players are also quite good, especially young Black and John Ritter, playing against type as a gentle, small-town gay man. Robert Duvall also shows up for a brief but effective cameo toward the end.

 

The film is too long (2 hours, 15 minutes), there are stretches when nothing much happens and some of the characters (including Ritter's) are rather thinly and stereotypically drawn.

 

But there is a lot of rich atmosphere here and Thornton's own central performance is riveting.

 

"Sling Blade" is rated R for off-screen violence, profanity and vulgarity.