By Amy Nicholson
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An impressive directorial debut from writer-actor Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote and starred in One False Move), Sling Blade is the stark, enveloping tale of Karl, a dimwitted killer released after 25 years in an Arkansas asylum for murdering his mother and her lover.
Thornton plays Karl with a guttural drone and a crazy-man face that at first appear to be hideous mimicry, but eventually achieve an eerie warmth. Karl's barren history emerges in one long, uninterrupted, darkly lit take of the killer being interviewed by a couple of high school girls. Mesmerizingly, Karl's strange, deep voice actually warms us to him despite the unpleasantness of his deeds. It's as if time and solitude have filled his gravelly voice with honest, numbing regret.
Karl is practically pushed out the door of the asylum, but our fears of what the killer's impact will be on the community are soon supplanted by a hedging empathy for Karl's discomfort at rejoining society. Eventually, Karl finds a job at a fix-it shop, and a home with a friendly, curious boy named Frank (Lucas Black) and his single mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), a new family in which Karl finds peace, especially when he's around Frank, who treats him like a little brother or a faithful pet.
The trouble is, Karl doesn't realize he's vying for a role that has two other contenders, and the ring is starting to get crowded. First, there's Linda's boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), an intolerant, quick-tempered layabout who, when not spouting off after a booze-ridden tear, can sweet-talk Linda to where she simply ignores his clear distaste for her son. Then there's Linda's boss and best friend at work, Vaughan (John Ritter), a gay man who is so concerned for Linda and Frank's well-being that he takes Karl to lunch (a great deadpan scene) to make sure Karl is, well, all right, having come from an asylum and all. Karl just sits there expressionless, as he often does, every once in a while letting off a polite non sequitur in that guttural drone, usually about how he likes French-fried "taters or biscuits."
Set amid the torrid conflicts of the other characters, Karl's calm, firm presence and affinity for Frank cause all of them to rethink their motives, actions and lives. In true melodramatic form, Sling Blade wends its way toward inevitable tragedy, but not before it has fully fleshed out a searing, darkly humorous and achingly thoughtful story of reckoning and human charity.
Thornton, who co-wrote (with Tom Epperson) two of recent memory's finer Southern-tinged dramas, One False Move and A Family Thing, has an incredible ear for the way blue-collar characters talk, particularly in confrontational situations or uncomfortable ones. His dialogue is easygoing and colorful without being archly corn pone or cartoonish--it's the poetry of drawl (too often it feels as though Hollywood's view of Southern characters is that everybody talks like a wacky sheriff). As a writer, Thornton likes to put different eccentrics together to see what happens, but he never strains believability. A kind yet naive single mother, a lonely son, an abusive boyfriend, a semicloseted gay man, and a quiet, mysterious killer sound like a convenient package for fireworks, yet Thornton pulls off this unwieldy domestic theater as if it were the most natural setup and lets his movie build with a brooding mixture of hope and dread.
Thornton's ear for the poetic rhythms of the blue-collar South and his knack for drawing believable conflict from melodramatic situations are on brilliant display here. The contemplative haul that Sling Blade is--it clocks in at more than two hours--is ultimately a refreshing one because Thornton is an extraordinarily confident filmmaker, one who has confidence in his actors. The film moseys without being poky and shows a strong, undiluted vision, taking its time to get where it's going but providing many rich, genuine touches along the way. Thornton gives the appearance of having watched a lot of Clint Eastwood's films, most notably Unforgiven, which Sling Blade resembles in its themes of redemption and reckoning. The two filmmakers share many stylistic traits: deliberate pacing, respect for environment, dark and muted visuals, and sneaky humor.
Thornton is also able to draw rich, varied performances from his cast, especially his own one-of-a-kind portrayal of the cipherish, mythic, almost ghostly Karl, but also Canerday's simple, hospitable mom and country-music star Yoakam's Doyle, a smoldering, insecure lout of the first water. Sling Blade is perhaps the year's most impressive debut because it is a no-frills tale told without compromise. The movie is heartfelt without preaching, and it reflects a keen awareness of how human contact can affect us at any moment, sometimes drastically. By the time Thornton has brought Karl and his movie full circle to the asylum again, the idea that Karl's life is one long sacrificial quest for inner peace and emotional justice has been studiously yet artfully made clear. The prologue is no longer a nightmare, and Sling Blade begins to achieve the resonance of a dream--Karl's dream, in fact.
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton.
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