Every now and again, you come across a movie that's been around for a while that makes an impression upon you and you wonder how on earth you managed to miss out on seeing it for so long. 'Sling blade' is a film that falls into this category for me. Maybe the title turned me off or perhaps the nature of the storyline didn't appeal to me back in 1996, but having seen it now for the first time on Blu-ray I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a very well made, engrossing and touching film.
Written, directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, it tells the tale of Karl Childers, a mentally disabled man who has killed his mother and her lover with a sling blade knife, but is now about to be released after 25 years in a mental institution. At the beginning of the picture, a young girl interviews him for her school newspaper and this allows us to get up to speed with the history pretty quickly and to realise that Karl is different. All sorts of ideas and fears cross our minds. Will he be accepted by society or taunted for his non standard behaviour?
Will he be put in situations that will test his patience and lead to him killing again? Will the stigma of fear of a convicted killer with mental health issues in the community conspire against him?
Upon his release he has nowhere to go, so the director of the hospital arranges for him to go and work for a friend with a lawnmower repair business, as Karl is a whiz at fixing small engines. Karl is allowed to live on the premises and soon discovers the delights of French fries from the local fast food joint - which he has at every meal.
He is befriended by Frank (Lucas Black) a young boy in search of a father figure and after some time is invited by the boy's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), to move in to their garage.
Everything goes well until Karl meets Linda's abusive boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), who is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. Karl quietly witnesses the obnoxious behaviour towards the boy, his mother and her gay friend Vaughan (John Ritter). We sense that something is building as this is clearly against Karl's simple definition of right and wrong. Karl calmly and calculatedly works through the steps of his plan to remove the obstruction to happiness for the boy and his mother. You'll need to watch the movie to find out whether he succeeds or not.
This is a movie that is directed by someone who is a great storyteller. It's a small film by modern standards and because of this it's all about the characters. We get to know them and care about them. Particularly we get to like Karl because he can be unintentionally funny, he has a wonderfully simplistic view of life and as his friendship with the boy grows we see him as human, with warmth and affection.
Billy Bob Thornton does such a fine job in the acting department that we start to see things from Karl's perspective and we're on his side as the film builds to its inevitable climax. At no point do we see his performance waiver for a split second - the suspension of disbelief is never dropped and so we feel in safe hands.
'Sling blade' was adapted from a short film by Billy Bob Thornton, entered in the Sundance film festival and developed into a full blown independent production.
As a director, he lets the action take place within a picture frame that does not vary during leisurely conversations - dictating the pace of the movie. This does not make the film seem slow in any way. It reflects the pace of life in the small Southern town and gives us the time to adapt while learning about the people. In an age where gimmicky photography and editing seem to be the norm, it's just nice to find that the old skills are still alive and well.
As a writer, he captures the Southern speech patterns accurately without resorting to the use of cliché or hackneyed, stereotypical phrases.
Before watching 'Sling blade', I'd seen Billy Bob Thornton in a few minor roles in movies and never really paused to reflect upon his performance. With this movie I gained a whole load of respect for a writer, director and actor who knows his craft. He's also done what a lot of good directors have, in that he has built up his own 'repertory company' of people he knows, likes and trusts to do their jobs well and turn in solid performances that will not let him or his movie down.
'Sling blade' is a picture from the 'old school' of film making that gets it right in so many areas that it's astounding to think that it only picked up one Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for Billy Bob Thornton. This is a 'wow' of a film that made its star a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood back in 1996.
If, like me, anyone is thinking that they don't like the premise of the rather sombre storyline then sometimes it's necessary to take that leap of faith to overcome initial reactions to get to the very worthwhile experience of a superb movie.
Do yourselves a favour and take the chance to see 'Sling blade' on Blu-ray.
Mr Thornton ..... Respect!
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