Combustible Celluloid

Sling Blade (1996)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Sling Blade on DVD.

We see Karl Childers staring out the window, his lower lip poked out so that his upper lip can rest on it. His eyes show that he is not in the room, but more than that, we can't say. Soon, he will be interviewed by a young girl for her school paper. At that point, Karl, played by Billy Bob Thornton, will give a long speech explaining what he did and why he did it, but more than that; the manner of his speech will tell us who he is. His voice is a low, rumbling drawl. By the end of the speech, we have decided we like Karl, and the more the movie goes on, the more we like him. Eventually, his strange voice becomes like music (the wonderful dialogue helps). It was great to watch the audience in the Lumiere theater being slowly charmed over the course of the movie.

It's a great performance. More so when you consider that Thornton wrote and directed Sling Blade as well. It's a brilliant debut, the kind of movie that worms its way into your soul and stays with you forever. Karl is a mentally retarded man who is about to be released from the mental hospital after being in there almost his whole life. He had killed his mother and her lover before he was even a teenager.

He meets a young boy who likes Karl's gentleness and mystique, and sees him as a father figure. The boy brings Karl home to live in their garage. Karl easily charms the boy's mother and gay friend, played by John Ritter. Unfortunately, the boy's mother is dating a dumb, repressed, evil, redneck psychopath (played by country singer Dwight Yoakam) that reminded me all too clearly of people I knew in Sonora. Yoakam's performance reminds one of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, explosive, unpredictable and frightening. We know that Karl will kill him, eventually, but it's the getting there that's important.

Sling Blade belongs in a genre with Forrest Gump and Rain Man, retarded characters who are wiser than the rest of us, but the comparisons stop there. Sling Blade is so unquestionably more intelligent than and superior to the two Hollywood Oscar winners, that they get blown away like tissue paper.

Jim Jarmusch (who directed Thornton in Dead Man) plays a worker at a hamburger joint, J.T. Walsh plays Karl's neighbor in the asylum, and Robert Duvall plays Karl's father. It's a wonderful movie and I don't expect to forget it easily.

DVD Details: Having seen more Thornton movies since 1996 and having interviewed him, his performace now only seems more incredible. Miramax has released Sling Blade in a new 2-disc DVD Special Edition, featuring a longer, director's cut and a commentary track by Billy Bob Thornton. Disc Two includes several featurettes and interviews, but it's missing the one key extra: Thornton's original short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1993) that was the basis for this feature.

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall, Jim Jarmusch
Written by: Billy Bob Thornton, based on a play by Billy Bob Thornton
Directed by: Billy Bob Thornton
MPAA Rating: R for strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior
Running Time: 135 minutes
Date: November 27, 1996

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