|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 04 February 1998|
Forward up to just about any chapter heading on 'Sling Blade' and chances are you'll find a scene that works as its own stand-alone story as well as it fits into the film as a whole. Director/writer/star Billy Bob Thornton won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (from his own stage play) and it's not hard to see why. Thornton is a filmmaker who knows how to create suspense and characterization without raising his voice.
When we meet Karl Childers (Thornton), he's just being released after spending 25 years in a mental hospital. He doesn't seem violent, but when he was 12, he used a sling blade knife to kill his mother and her bullying boyfriend. Karl, slow of speech and thought, is at first reluctant to leave the hospital, but he soon gets a job. He is also befriended by Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a bright little boy who persuades his widowed mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) to let Karl move into their garage. Linda's boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) is a batterer, a bigot and a drunk--who doesn't know Karl's history.
Thornton is brilliant at creating a mood of anticipatory dread that contrasts startlingly with 'Sling Blade''s air of leisurely character study. Also, his use of backlighting during key monologues which detail horrendous incidents give the tale-telling an almost mythic quality. Thornton also knows how to knock off some iconographic images (check out Karl framed first by trees, then bridge trestles in Chapter 4) while never letting his style get in the way of his storytelling.
Thornton has assembled a terrific cast here, with especially good work from young Black. John Ritter gives a funny, well-nuanced performance as Linda's gay best friend and Yoakam is chillingly matter-of-fact as the creep boyfriend who imagines he's one of the good guys. Fans of Yoakam's music may get a bang out of his in-character garage-band turn in Chapter 11.
Mostly I find this film of reference disc quality for its discrete capabilities. There are no million-dollar stunts or twenty minute car chases, only competent acting and well-shot celluloid. If this interests you more than glossy, plotless Hollywood theatrics, this film should definitely be added to your collection.