Monday 21 December 2015

Movie Review: Sling Blade (1996)

A rural drama about a mentally handicapped killer attempting to reintegrate back into the fabric of a small town, Sling Blade features a superlative Billy Bob Thornton performance and an unsettling mood of surface normalcy building to a quiet boil.

The story is set in rural Arkansas. As a young and none-too-bright teenager, Karl Childers killed his mother and her lover with a sling blade (handle like an axe, blade curved like a banana) when he caught them in the act of having sex. Incarcerated for years in a mental institution, the adult Karl (Thornton) has now served his sentence and is released back into the community. He has a lumbering gait and a distinctive monotonal speech pattern, his sentence pauses frequently filled with "mmm-hmmm" sounds and most of his phrases starting with "I reck'n".

Karl makes his way to his home town, and befriends a young teenager called Frank (Lucas Black), who is being raised by his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday). Frank's father killed himself, and Linda is now dating the boorish and abusive Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Karl finds employment at a small engine repair shop, and is introduced to Linda's good friend and boss, the openly gay Vaughan (John Ritter). Karl remains haunted by a childhood trauma, and pays a visit to his elderly father (Robert Duvall), now living in decrepit conditions. Although Karl's reintroduction into town appears to be generally going well, Doyle's utterly selfish behaviour and mistreatment of Frank threaten to disrupt Karl's new life.

Directed by Thornton, Sling Blade is a small, independent film with a big impact. Thornton immediately catapulted himself into stardom by carefully assembling a quiet, often quaint film, but with a pervasive sense of potential danger lurking around the unkempt corners of southern smallville, USA. Karl carries a dangerous past, but he is a product of his culture and upbringing. Religious zealotry, infanticide and domestic violence fed by a lack of education travel along with the seemingly docile winds of his home town.

The film unfolds with a measured pace. The first chapter at the mental hospital introduces Karl through the device of an interview he gives to a high school newspaper, and in an astounding one-take scene Karl recounts his story with a chilling combination of innocence, awareness and stark honesty. The middle third introduces the town and the characters within it, and they generally open their hearts and homes, for the most part welcoming Karl despite his past. The final act builds towards Karl forming an exceptionally strong bond with young Frank, and understanding his purpose in life.

The film never wavers in tone but it also starts to telegraph its intentions relatively early. Doyle as the antagonist (Dwight Yoakam nailing a despicable low-life) is a version of Karl who has yet to commit the crime that will send him to an institution, but he's getting close. The confrontation between the two men with Frank's future at stake is predictable, and Thornton sees it through to the end.

The screen character of Karl Childers is unforgettable. Thornton brings to life a seemingly docile, slow, dim-witted man who has killed out of ignorance, grown up behind the walls of an institution and is now asked to go out and survive in the real world. Thornton delivers mannerisms, speech patterns and pauses that recall Hoffman's stellar turn as Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man, only more tortured and living with a legacy of a history most violent.

Sling Blade explores the origins and consequences of evil, and finds fertile grounds where death and redemption flourish side by side.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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