Sling Blade (1996) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior
Running time: 135 min.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Screenplay: Billy Bob Thornton (based on his play)
Review published March 11, 2000
It's the movie that made Billy Bob Thornton (Dead Man, Tombstone) a star, and an unlikely vehicle to be one of the better films of 1996. Sling Blade also garnered a best screenplay Oscar for Thornton, who not only plays the lead, but also directs. There's really not too much here in terms of surprises, but Thornton does make us care enough that we are genuinely interested in the fates of everyone here. This isn't a film about good and evil, with a clear protagonist or antagonist, but rather it's a film about right and wrong. It's a tricky distinction, but one which makes the story that much more compelling.
Thornton does well in his portrayal of the retarded and deeply troubled man, Karl. He has spent all of his adult life in a mental institution for the murder of his mother and her lover, but gets his release after his rehabilitation. He heads back to his hometown where he is given a job fixing things, while also allowed to stay near the home of Frank (Black, Cold Mountain), a boy he befriends, along with his mother (Canerday, One False Move). Things aren't very rosy in the household sometimes, as Frank's mother is seeing Doyle (Yoakam, Panic Room), a sometimes belligerent drunk with a dislike for Frank, Karl and just about everyone else.
Probably the only real weakness here comes from the lack of quality acting. In fact, many of the scenes are a bit awkward due to this, and it takes some getting used to ignoring the wooden performances to follow the richly layered story. Thornton's screenplay isn't the only impressive aspect of the film, as he directs the film in very fine fashion, with good cinematography and coldly dramatic music to accentuate the best parts of the film at the right times. Karl is one of the most memorable characters I've ever seen in a film, evoking pained sympathy underneath his comic exterior at all times.
Sling Blade is a quality independent film from a very talented man, and is recommended for those who like character driven films and nicely written stories, even if the dialogue isn't delivered with precision. Albeit a little awkward and somewhat hackneyed, this film still has a heart and soul, which makes it a special film, very worthy of the accolades it has received.
©2000 Vince Leo