March 7, 1997 in Seven

Southern Discomfort The Past Overtakes The Present In Billy Bob Thornton’s Story Of A Gentle-Hearted Killer Who Won’t Be Left Alone

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In his guttural cough of a voice, Karl Childers explains why he was put in a mental institution for 25 years.

“I takened the kaiser blade, some folks call it a sling blade,” he says, “an’ hit my mother upside the head with it an’ kilt her.”

And so begins “Sling Blade,” one of the most fascinating films of 1996. Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote and directed the small-budgeted feature, also stars as the afflicted Karl - a feat that has earned him not one, but two Academy Award nominations.

Now, Hollywood tends to love emotionally and/or developmentally challenged characters. Think of Cliff Robertson in “Charly.” Think of Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Think of Tom Hanks in that movie about the distance-running, pingpong-playing shrimp-boat captain (I think it was called “Forrest Gump”).

All won Academy Awards.

And don’t forget Geoffrey Rush, who is up for an Oscar for “Shine,” last year’s film about disturbed Australian pianist David Helfgott.

So it should come as no real surprise that the relatively unknown Thornton should earn a Best Actor nod. What is surprising is that enough Academy voters saw “Sling Blade” to warrant giving Thornton an additional nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Even in this year of the alternative film, “Sling Blade” rates as an underachiever. Only now, two months into 1997, is it getting released in the Spokanes of the world.

Bootstrap financing and a severely staggered release, though, aren’t the only obstacles that “Sling Blade” has had to overcome. The closest thing to a name actor the film has to offer is the virtually unrecognizable John Ritter (television’s “Three’s Company”), and the movie’s overall tone - though lightened throughout with poignant moments of humor - dips toward the somber.

Let’s not even mention its two-hour-plus running time.

Still, the saga of Karl Childers is mesmerizing. And as the lead character, Thornton manages to be both sensitive and knowing without ever resorting to the kind of cuteness that Hanks, for one, couldn’t avoid.

It may be because of his down-home, Arkansas roots, but Thornton’s Karl owes much to Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley, the angel of mercy from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Karl’s matter-of-fact attitude about life is most evident in the movie’s brilliant opening, which features a couple of high-school journalists coming to the state hospital to interview him. Karl is about to be released, and one of the girls wants to know whether he’ll ever kill again.

“I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill nobody,” Karl says in his rhythmic growl.

When he says that, of course, you suspect that the movie will give him reason to. And you aren’t wrong.

Almost as soon as Karl leaves the hospital, he is virtually adopted by a family comprising a young boy (Lucas Black), the boy’s kind mother (Natalie Canerday) and the mother’s friend and boss, a gay storekeeper (Ritter).

And then there’s Doyle (played by country singer Dwight Yoakam), the mother’s abusive good-ol’-boyfriend. Prone to violent outbursts when he’s been drinking, which is a regular occurrence, Doyle rails against “sissies” and “retards.”

So even though Karl makes friends, finds a steady job as a lawnmower repairman and, in general, begins to make a life for himself, the Bible-reading recluse finds himself thrown back into his own past by Doyle’s harassment. Ultimately, his response takes a distinctly Old Testament turn.

It is this inexorable progression toward resolution that is the only real flaw to “Sling Blade.” But dwelling on flaws would be a mistake here, for if you do that, you miss the film’s many riches.

Thornton, who co-wrote the script for Carl Franklin’s powerful neo-noir “One False Move,” developed the basis for “Sling Blade” as a theatrical monologue. That speech, with some minimalist camera work, makes up the film’s first 20 or so minutes - and arguably is its most effective sequence.

Thornton affects an unhurried style that explains the film’s length, but he does so for a reason: It reflects Karl’s interior clock. Meanwhile, both his sense of place and talent for country idioms feel as familiar as a Wal-Mart greeter.

“The children there made quite a bit of sport of me,” Karl says at one point of his grade-school experiences.

The performances are just as natural, whether they come from teenager Black, secondary players J.T. Walsh (as a psychopath) and James Hampton (as the friendly prison warden) or Yoakam, whose acting talent is as smooth as his boot-scootin’ music.

Yet the real strength of Thornton’s achievement involves his own ability to make Karl seem like the calm eye of the hurricane that swirls around him while demonstrating that, ultimately, he is anything but a cipher.

Karl may not be a Zen priest, as some suspect, but he understands life as much as his limited abilities and experience allow him to.

He expresses, for example, his knowing nature to his father (interestingly enough played by Duvall) in their brief meeting.

Justifiably enraged at this poor excuse for a parent, Karl ends up walking away. His destiny lies elsewhere, namely to act like the father he never had in the only way he knows how.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Sling Blade:” Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Beautifully photographed and often heartfelt, “Sling Blade” hits more than it misses. Steven Rea/Philadelphia Inquirer: It’s a shatteringly good film. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Indulgently long at two hours 13 minutes, it drifts gradually toward climactic events that seem convenient and contrived. The ending is tacked on with far less subtlety than the rest of “Sling Blade” offers. Robert W. Butler/Kansas City Star: “Sling Blade” is often genuinely heartwarming, but it’s also an edgy drama with a fatalistic outlook and dreadful sense of imminent violence. And at unexpected moments it’s a true hoot, turning scenes inside out with shaggy dog humor and good ol’ boy repartee.

“SLING BLADE” ***-1/2 Locations: Lyons Credits: Written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Lucas Black, John Ritter, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, J.T. Walsh and Robert Duvall Running time: 2:14 Rating: R

These sidebars appeared with the story: OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Sling Blade:” Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Beautifully photographed and often heartfelt, “Sling Blade” hits more than it misses. Steven Rea/Philadelphia Inquirer: It’s a shatteringly good film. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Indulgently long at two hours 13 minutes, it drifts gradually toward climactic events that seem convenient and contrived. The ending is tacked on with far less subtlety than the rest of “Sling Blade” offers. Robert W. Butler/Kansas City Star: “Sling Blade” is often genuinely heartwarming, but it’s also an edgy drama with a fatalistic outlook and dreadful sense of imminent violence. And at unexpected moments it’s a true hoot, turning scenes inside out with shaggy dog humor and good ol’ boy repartee.

“SLING BLADE” ***-1/2 Locations: Lyons Credits: Written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Lucas Black, John Ritter, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, J.T. Walsh and Robert Duvall Running time: 2:14 Rating: R


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