Friday, 13 July 2007
Sling Blade (1996) dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter
I‘ve never forgotten how good “Sling Blade” is. Made in 1996 by then unknown, yet multi-talented writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton, it was an incredible achievement. The film had passion, suspense, humour and is a true auteur piece of cinema. Every couple of years I try to watch and re-experience the film. You should too.
The story is so simple yet each and every time I re-watch it it packs an emotional wallop. Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl Childers who, after over 30 years, is recently released from the local mental institution and forced to reintroduce himself into regular society. Karl is mentally slow and has trouble socializing with the Arkansas locals. Karl chatting with the warden’s family at his house is wonderful scene. Karl gets a job fixing engines at a local body shop. He also meets a young kid Frank (Lucas Black), who likes Karl because he talks like a motorbike. Karl becomes the father Frank never had. He is ingratiated into his home by his kindly mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), but is also forced to deal with her abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Doyle is the typical redneck and perhaps the only typecast character. As Linda’s gay friend Vaughn describes him, “he is a monster”.
As Karl’s friendship deepens with Frank he realizes the danger Doyle represents to the family harmony potential in Linda and Frank. Karl was abused as a child, and killed his mother which brought him to the mental institution. Karl makes a selfless sacrifice that will affect everyone’s lives including his own for the better.
Billy Bob embodies Karl. It’s clear Billy Bob had this film and this character in his mind for a long time. The film echoes Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Karl is essentially Lennie – the kind-hearted giant whose heart is stronger than his body. John Ritter shines as Vaughn. He plays his homosexuality with subtly and we admire his nobility when he stands up to Doyle after a drunken fight in Linda’s home. In many ways Vaughn is as much of a hero to the family as Karl is. Without Karl in Frank’s life we assume Vaughn will become the ‘in absentia’ father figure.
Another star of the film is Daniel Lanois who composed the score. Lanois made his career producing albums for Brian Eno, U2, and Bob Dylan, but he is given his time to shine on “Sling Blade”. His Southern melancholy sound sets the perfect tone for the film. The scene when Karl finds his infant brother’s makeshift grave at his father house is great and made so much more heartbreaking with Lanois' dreamlike music cue.
Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for two Oscars for the film in 1996 – Best Actor, and Best Writer. He won for Best Writer. Other than acting Billy Bob hasn’t had much success since. His second film “All the Pretty Horses” was such a disaster professionally, personally, commercially and for the most part critically. Has anyone seen “Daddy and Them” with Laura Dern ‘released’ in 2001 but actually shot after “Sling Blade”? Maybe Thornton will never direct another film again. But remember Charles Laughton only directed one film. All it takes is one great film to solidify one’s name in cinema history. Billy Bob has done that with “Sling Blade”. Enjoy
Buy it here: Sling Blade
Here’s the brilliant opening scene: