|Sling Blade (Director's Cut)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 07 June 2005|
This remarkable movie, simply conceived and carefully wrought, is what brought Billy Bob Thornton from a character actor known to movie buffs and folks in Arkansas to the unusual, interesting position he holds today. Now he’s free to take character or leading roles in comedies or dramas, to work in big-studio films and small independent movies. There’s no one else in movies today with a career quite like his, and it all began because he stood in front of a mirror and made funny faces.
That’s the surprising genesis of “Sling Blade” as Thornton explains in the commentary track and in some of the exhaustively-extensive supplemental material on this densely-packed DVD. In theaters, the unexpectedly popular movie ran 135 minutes; Thornton was able to restore some favorite scenes for the DVD, so that the version presented here is 148 minutes—probably a shade too long for most people. But not for Thornton—this is his baby, since he wrote, directed and stars, and he’s giving it a big soft cradle.
Thornton is nearly unrecognizable as Karl Childers, a slightly retarded, extremely asocial man in what seems to be his mid thirties. He’s spent the years since he was 12 in a mental institution; now sympathetic Dr. Woolridge (the always welcome James Hampton) has to set him free—Karl’s sentence has run out. We learn very early just why he was there in the first place. His parents didn’t quite know what to do with him, so they gave him a room in their barn. That was okay with Karl, though; he’s hardly the demanding type. One day, he saw a man on top of his mother in the kitchen, and thought she was being injured. With a sling blade—“some folks call it a sling blade,” says Karl in his low monotone, “I call it a Kaiser blade”—he killed the “attacker” and then, when she screamed, he killed his mother, too.
Thrust into the outside world—which he never really knew even as a boy—Karl is uncertain, but Thornton the actor keeps his character almost inexpressive. Not quite, but almost. He goes back to Woolridge, who helps him get a job repairing lawnmowers and other small machines with Bill Cox (Rick Dial), a friend in Karl’s home town.
Karl also meets a boy, Frank (Lucas Black), who’s open and friendly with him. At one point Frank tells Karl, “I like the way you talk.” Karl, who’s never had a friend, quickly responds, “I like the way you talk, too.” It’s just about the only thing he does quickly in the whole movie. Frank’s widowed mother Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canerday) is glad to see that her shy son has made a friend—like Karl, he has few. They allow Karl to live in their garage while he continues working for Cox.
Linda and Frank introduce Karl to her good-natured, kind boss, Vaughan (John Ritter); Frank explains to Karl that Vaughan is funny, not ha ha, but queer. Vaughan is indeed gay; he came from Kansas City and has been the object of speculation and some ridicule in this small Arkansas town. But he’s sticking it out; he’s very fond of Linda and Frank, who are accepting of his sexual trait and friendly to his lover; in time, Vaughan also becomes fond of Karl. (No, not a hint of sexual attraction.)
This would be idyllic, a fine setting for remote, lonely Karl to live out his life—except for Linda’s boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakum). Doyle is one of Thornton’s most astute creations. He must have known a lot of good ol’ boys like Doyle, because while he makes him very specific to the area (the Ozarks, I suppose), makes him definitely a wrong ‘un, he doesn’t exaggerate anything. We can see the man Linda fell for, though he seems to be fading way, replaced by a cold, selfish brute. Doyle is the star of his own movie, and everyone else plays bit roles. The idea that anything in his life does not center on him is literally inconceivable to him. And he’s getting meaner and meaner.
The ending of the movie is hardly a surprise; once everyone has been introduced, there’s no doubt as to how the film will end. It’s the journey that’s so fascinating. There has never been a retarded character in movies quite like Karl. Usually they’re saintly, touched by God, the innocent source of wisdom. Karl is something else altogether, and more realistic. He’s inexpressive, but that doesn’t mean he lacks feelings; without any overt evidence in his performance, Thornton makes it very clear that Karl likes this little family he’s fallen into. And we realize that he will do what it takes to make the family safe. Near the end, he leaves a note for Frank: “You will be happy.” The film is deeply moving at times, especially at that point. And yet it’s so simple.
Thornton was a struggling character actor, stuck in a role he didn’t like. Feeling downtrodden, he stared into his trailer mirror and began making funny faces. Finally, he thrust out his lower jaw, squinted, and spoke in a guttural monotone. And he was looking at Karl Childers. It’s not surprising that in the supplemental material, Thornton identifies one of his favorite actors as Lon Chaney (Senior), the master of total transformation. Thornton becoming Karl—which we see him do in some of the supplemental material—is as astonishing as Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera, or as amazing as the first time we saw Lon Chaney Jr. turn into the Wolf Man. It simply doesn’t look possible, and yet all Thornton changes is his stance (his head is thrust forward), his jaw and his eyes, plus that haunting voice and delivery. (Karl often ends comments with little croaks or gulps, often with “mmm-hmmm,” as if he’s agreeing with what he just said.) He’s fond of French fry pertaters and biscuits with mustard. It’s unclear if he likes mustard on biscuits just because he likes mustard on biscuits, or because Thornton was trying to expunge all red from his movie. Karl reads; he knows the Bible pretty well, he allows, and carries around a small bundle of books—his only possessions other than the one pair of pants and shirt he wears throughout the movie.
It must have been unnerving the first few days on the set, when outgoing, good-natured but vivid Billy Bob vanished, leaving this stranger in his body. It’s not a trick, it’s a performance, and he was Oscar-nominated for it. (He won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.) It’s careful, precise and thorough; he’s Karl down to the soles of his feet, he walks with an awkward gait, his arms hanging at an angle that suggests something other than gravity is acting on them.
But the movie isn’t all Thornton’s performance, as incredible as it is; everyone is good. He’d known John Ritter for some time—they’d both been regulars on the series “Hearts Afire”—and wanted him for the role of the somewhat prim but honest gay Vaughan. He even had to change his hairdo; the one he has is quite amazing, a failed attempt at stylish. It’s completely unlike anything Ritter ever did in his too-short life, and simply excellent. He dares to use what some might regard as stereotypical gay modes of behavior, but is also very focused on the reality of his character. The result is an ingratiating figure of great dignity and honesty, a man you’d like to have as a friend.
Lucas Black as Frank is also very good; according to Thornton he tried to get his lines done in one take so he could go bass fishing. Thornton hired him again a few years later for “All the Pretty Horses,” and they were both cast in “Friday Night Lights.” J.T. Walsh, who’s also since died, has two great scenes at the beginning and end; he’s another asylum inmate, a self-satisfied, joking serial killer who loves to tell the gruesome details of his past to an impassive—and therefore, he assumes, accepting—Karl. Walsh rarely got the credit he was so often due, including by me, and I’m very sorry he’s gone.
Singer Dwight Yoakum is so good as the unpleasant Doyle that the reason he hasn’t been in a lot of movies since has to be because he just doesn’t want to. Rick Dial was a childhood friend of Thornton’s; he’d never acted before “Sling Blade,” but Robert Duvall—who briefly appears here as Karl’s unpleasant father—like his performance so much he cast him in another film. Thornton humorously admits that for a while, Dial was acting more than he was.
This Miramax DVD is almost too much of a good thing. I don’t think anything significant was gained by the restoring of the cut scenes, identified only in Thornton’s commentary tract, and a long, deliberately-paced movie was made longer, maybe slower. His comments are delivered in a low, soft voice, almost a whisper, but often they aren’t especially illuminating.
The second disc of this two-disc set is overflowing with extras; it will take interested viewers a couple of days to get through all this material. “Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood” is a detailed, lengthy documentary on Thornton from childhood—one of the interviewees is a high school teacher—to the present day. Others who appear are Duvall, Dial, co-writer and childhood friend Tom Epperson, Thornton’s mother, Harry Thomason, Jim Varney, Hank Azaria and Ritter.
There’s a Bravo profile of Billy Bob (his actual name—he’s not William Robert) that’s so annoyingly edited it ends up being about itself and not about Thornton. There’s a round table discussion with Billy Bob, Yoakum, Mickey Jones and producer David Bushell that, for once, is actually conducted at a round table. Again, this is full of detail and lengthy, but we do learn that Thornton’s biggest acting influences were Lon Chaney, J.T. Walsh and Alec Guinness. Probably also Andy Griffith, as seen in one of the other features.
There’s an interview with Thornton and Duvall, who’s quite a bit different than you might expect him to be, then one just with Duvall alone. There’s also a two-way discussion—though Billy Bob does most of the talking—with Thornton and composer Daniel Lanois, who wrote the excellent, understated score for “Sling Blade.” This would probably me of most interest to fellow musicians.
There’s also a short, unidentified bit with Thornton doing Karl again for a few friends; when he transforms back into Thornton (doing Elvis!) at the end it’s quite startling. Under a section headed “On the Set,” we see behind-the-camera footage of Thornton directing (as he’s costumed as Karl, of course, it’s another of the unnerving bits), a short section of Doyle’s lousy band performing, and an odd sequence, videotapes of a scene from the film, taken as it was being filmed. There’s a bit that Thornton considered including in the film after the credits, but it’s neither very interesting nor very funny. Finally, there are three “reviews” of the film—one is an article on the movie, one is an actual review, and one seems to be something like an essay about the value of having Karl as a friend. (He’d unquestioningly kill anyone you wanted killed.) Strangely, the short, “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” that led to the feature isn’t included.
Despite this cornucopia of extras, the real treasure here, as always, is the movie itself. “Sling Blade” is a minor miracle; Thornton has written and directed movies since, but they’re nothing like this in quality or content. This truly is a one-of-a-kind movie, with a one-of-a-kind character. It’s funny, haunting and disturbing, and a truer picture of the South you’ll never see.