A partially handicapped man named Karl is released from a mental hospital, about 20 years after murdering his mother and another person. Karl is often questioned if he will ever kill again, and he shrugs in response saying there is no reason to. Now out of the mental institution, Karl settles in his old, small hometown, occupying himself by fixing motors. After meeting a young boy named Frank, who befriends him, Karl is invited to stay at Frank's house with his mother Linda, who views Karl as a strange but kind and generous man. However, Linda's abusive boyfriend, Doyle, sees things differently in the way rules ought to be run- normally insulting Linda's homosexual friend Vaughan as well as Karl's disabilities, and having wild parties with his friends. As Karl's relationship with Frank grows, he is watchful of Doyle's cruel actions.Written by
Set in a small, rural Southern town, Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" is so flavorful in ambiance and tone, so rich in character and theme that it's hard to believe that its roots are not to be found in any short story or novel. For while it has all the earmarks of a great work of literature, "Sling Blade" is actually an original creation by Thornton, the triple threat talent who wrote, directed and stars in the work.
Karl Childers is a marginally retarded man who's been living in a mental institution ever since, as a child, he accidentally stumbled across his mother and her lover in a compromising position and, in a moment of considerable confusion, hacked the two of them to death. After being officially declared by the state to be "rehabilitated" and "cured," Karl is thrust back out into the world where he forms a bond with a fatherless boy, his hardworking, compassionate mother and a gay storeowner who has long since become a part of their extended family. Also part of that family is the widow's twisted boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves, who physically and psychologically abuses both mother and son.
Thanks to Carl's "strangeness" and homicidal background, as well as the simmering volatility and mercurial temperament of Doyle, there is always the threat of violence hanging ominously over the work. Yet, in many ways, "Sling Blade" is really about the goodness of people in their willingness to overlook external differences and to find the similarities that unite us all in a common bond of humanity. For the most part, the people in this quiet little community try to reach out and befriend Karl, sensing a decency in him that helps to mitigate any possible fear they might have of him based solely on surface eccentricities. Even when he is eventually forced into violent action, he does so as an avenging angel bringing swift and righteous justice, not as a murderous demon acting out of hatred or malice.
The acting in the film - beginning with Thornton himself - could not be more brilliant. With his stooped shoulders, tight-lipped smile, jutting jaw, vacant expression and guttural throat-clearing, Karl became the butt of so many jokes back when the movie first came out that it's easy to forget what a truly amazing character - and job of acting - Thornton has pulled off here. The actor we've known from so many other movies is completely invisible in this role, as he literally becomes Karl in every fiber of his being and, in so doing, forces us to see the wisdom and humanity buried deep inside the person. The performance is such a touchstone of acting for our generation that it is easy to miss all the other great acting in the film, particularly on the part of Natalie Canerday, Lucas Black, John Ritter, J.T. Walsh, Robert Duvall and, most especially, Dwight Yoakam, whose portrayal of a man teetering on the edge of a psychopathic meltdown is bone-chilling and brilliant.
As a writer, Thornton has shaped his film like a modern day parable - simple, symbol-laden and allegorical. As a director, he proves himself a master of rhythm and pacing, setting the mood and allowing the scenes to play themselves out without recourse to overstatement or melodrama. In fact, this is one of those rare movies in which every moment feels just right, so confident is Thornton in his ability as a filmmaker to bring his story to life on screen. He also knows how to make the bucolic setting come across as both stark and sensuous at the same time, a place of quiet stillness that provides the perfect backdrop for the morality tale he is endeavoring to tell. Finally, Daniel Lanois has provided a haunting musical score that ever so subtly draws us into the disturbingly offbeat world of the drama.
"Sling Blade" earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Thornton, but he should also have won awards for his directing and his performance as Karl, not to mention the film itself which should have won the honor as Best Picture of 1996 - although Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, failed even to nominate it. Ah well, even with that lapse in judgment, "Sling Blade" remains one of the great movie dramas of the past decade.
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