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Sling Blade

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Sling Blade

Starring: Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thorton
Director: Billy Bob Thorton
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: November 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Brent Briscoe, Christy Ward, J.T. Walsh, James Hampton, Jim Jarmusch, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Robert Duvall

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Mental institutions for the criminally insane can house some pretty harmless looking characters. One such gentle soul is Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton, a character actor in many shows including ONE FALSE MOVE, TOMBSTONE, and DEAD MAN). Karl appears like he wouldn't harm the proverbial fly. He just sits stoically staring out the window as fellow inmate Charles Bushman (J. T. Walsh in a cameo role) tells of renting a prostitute who turns out to be male. Nothing fazes Karl.

Peaceful Karl is the lead of Miramax's SLING BLADE, Miramax is billing as a "southern gothic tale." This is a small picture that feels like it was originally a short story, and it is not easy to characterize. I went to a special advance screening knowing nothing, not even the name of the picture. If you like films where the acting takes center stage, then SLING BLADE is the film for you. Calling it a southern gothic tale works about as good as anything I could have come up with. It reminded me somewhat of BEING THERE, RAINMAN, and other movies, but it is fairly unique.

Besides being an actor, Billy Bob Thornton is an accomplished screenwriter. He crafted the innovative scripts for ONE FALSE MOVE and A FAMILY THING. In SLING BLADE, he does the script and, for the first time, tries his hand at directing. The film, which won a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival, has a single problem. Thornton's pacing too often bogs down. Certainly, this is a film you want to take leisurely, but he goes overboard on the slowness. The acting, on the other hand, is so involving that one can easily overlook this flaw. I'd give Thornton an Oscar nomination for best actor if it were me, but I'm sure this obscure picture will be overlooked by the members of the Academy. Thornton has the speech cadence, the physical mannerism, and the overall presence of a southern hick with an IQ in the low double digits.

"I reckon, I'm gon'na have to get use to lookin' at pretty people," Karl tells Warden Jerry Woolridge (James Hampton) after a plain looking girl from a high school newspaper interviews Karl before he is released from prison. She can not understand why they are releasing him since twenty-five years ago he killed his mother and her lover with a sling blade. The warden shrugs and says he has served his time, and since he has been ruled no longer insane, they have to let him go.

Even though he is a killer, his gentle presence and slow walk immediately wins the audience's heart. Karl finds the outside world unbearably frightening. He goes to the Dairy Queen where the counter help (director Jim Jarmusch in a cameo role) wants to know what Karl wants. This is a tough question for Karl. You feel like crying for the poor guy. Finally, he has Jarmusch just recommend something.

After Karl freaks out and returns to his prison home, the warden gets him a job back in town working as a repairman for Bill Cox (Rick Dial). In an ongoing subtheme, many of the sane people in the film, like Cox's worker Scooter Hodges (Brent Briscoe), have less effective smarts than Karl.

Karl goes to live with Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canderday) and her son Frank (Lucas Black II from the TV show "American Gothic"). Their life has been almost as traumatic as Karl's. Frank's father blew his brains out with a shotgun, and his mother is dating an abusive redneck named Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam).

Karl and Frank strike up a friendship, and Karl becomes the Daddy Frank never had. The dialog between them is touching and reminiscent of that from BEING THERE. At this point in the film, I had no idea where the movie was going.

"You think I'm scared of you staying here? You're just a humped over retard. ... Welcome to our humble house," Doyle greets Frank when he comes to live at Linda's house. Doyle is so dumb and prejudiced that he is easy to hate, but this is not the typical overacted redneck part. Yoakam gives a highly controlled performance of a guy so ignorant that he almost gets your sympathy until he opens his mouth. Actually all of the characters are quite genuine. Even Robert Duvall appears in an important cameo role as Karl's long absent and abusive father.

John Ritter appears as Linda's coworker and friend Vaughan Cunningham. Since he is one of the few openly gay people in the small town, he is subject to much derision from Doyle. The irony is that Karl, Vaughan, and Frank are all much more of a man that Doyle. Doyle is little more than the shadow of a man.

Since Karl seems so serious about everything, people are convinced he is some sort of a sage. At a coffee shop, Vaughan asks him, "You seem like a thinker. You seem to always be deep in thought. So what are you thinking right now?" After Karl's trademark pregnant pause, he says, "I'm thinking I could take more of these po'taters."

Linda tells Karl she has invited her coworker Melinda (Christy Ward) over the next day as his date for dinner and asks him what he thinks about that. "I reckon I wouldn't mind a little supper." The terse script has a poetic quality to it. It is touchingly humorous, but I rarely laughed in the film. I guess I was so wrapped up in feeling sorry for and worrying about my new friend Karl.

The cinematography by Barry Markowitz is naturalistic with the warm glow of a few incandescent bulbs. The sets by Clark Hunter have lower class southern homes down pat. The houses are clean but cluttered with cheap furniture and tacky memorabilia. The music by Daniel Lanois knows just when to switch to peaceful melodies. Even the sound by Jeff Kushner has an extra serenity thanks to abundant use of the southern minstrels - crickets. Technically, a well constructed film for one that clearly had to survive on a fairly low budget.

Most films fad in our minds like the setting sun. I suspect SLING BLADE will too, but I will long remember the lovely performance of Billy Bob Thornton. Every halting movement of Karl's was touching. >From the way he kept his mouth shut tight with his lower lip swallowing his upper to the way he stared at situations trying to parse their meanings to his delightful aphorisms, his acting was near perfect. I can not imagine any other actor approaching the role in a more convincing and captivating manner. An acting tour de force you don't want to miss.

SLING BLADE runs 2:15. It is rated R for some profanity and one scene of strong but off screen violence. There is no sex or nudity. The film would be fine for teenagers. This is a tender show even given its prejudice and overriding threat of violence. I recommend this little picture to you and give it ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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