The first words of Sling Blade are spoken by the late, great J.T. Walsh, after he drags a chair, loudly and mercilessly across a linoleum floor to plop down next to Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton), the film’s protagonist. “A Mercury is a real good car,” he announces. “That was the car I was driving that day.” And he proceeds to tell a series of horrifying stories; Karl sits, and listens, and grunts; he may not be happy about leaving what he calls “the nervous hospital,” but getting away from this guy would seem to be one immediate benefit.It is perhaps a little unorthodox to begin your film with an extended, creepy monologue by a two-scene character, but there’s nothing routine about Sling Blade, the fascinating, nuanced Southern Gothic drama that put Billy Bob Thornton on the map and created one of the great, iconic characters of 1990s cinema. It is intriguing to note how we have come to consider Thornton solely as an actor, forgetting that he wrote and directed this breakthrough picture, and make no mistake, in the intervening decade-plus, he’s given us enough memorable performances to cement that reputation. But his delicate, precise script and painterly direction were all of a piece with his tremendous leading performance; lest we forget, he won his one and only Oscar to date for this film’s screenplay.
It tells the story of Karl, a mentally impaired man who was placed in the mental hospital during his teens for murdering his mother and a classmate (with the titular weapon—“some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade”) whom he caught in the act. He is now being released into the world (“they tell me I’m well”), but he’s not sure exactly what to do with himself; a hospital administrator gets him work in a fix-it shop, and he befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) who offers Karl a place to stay. The boy and his single mom, Linda (Natalie Canderday), along with her best friend, the gay shopkeeper Vaughn (John Ritter, playing well against type), become something of a surrogate family for Karl, but that delicate balance is frequently upset by Linda’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) a drunken lout who openly loathes her son and mercilessly mocks Karl and Vaughn.
Thornton’s screenplay, which is legitimately reminiscent of the small-town dramas of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, has a tremendous individual voice—he has a remarkable ear for the Southern dialect even for one-line characters with lines like “These are the people from that newspaper deal?” He writes in vernacular, but never makes the mistake of making his Southern characters dumb; even challenged Karl has an elegance and color to his speech, with statements like “I ought not worry your mama with comp’ny” and “He got me hired on with Bill Cox’s outfit,” and some of the dialogue (especially in the last scene between Karl and Vaughn) is marvelously poetic. Beyond the dialogue, Thornton’s script is filled with three-dimensional characters and utilizes a structure so subtle, you don’t realize how efficient it is; the events of the closing passages unfold with a precise, unforced inevitability (right down to the clean way he ends three consecutive scenes with three different characters saying the same line—“Karl?”—in slightly different ways).
Thornton’s performance has been justifiably celebrated, both at the time and over the passing years, but it’s particularly remarkable to watch now that he has crafted such a particular screen persona—with his bowl haircut, jutted-out jaw, and clean-shaven face, he’s barely even recognizable here. His speaking voice was so widely recognized and aped (for a time in early 1997, it seemed like everyone was doing a Karl impersonation) that we may not have realized what an interesting corner he painted himself into with it; that flat, unaffected speech pattern forced this actor, whose expressive voice has since become one of his greatest tools, to find other ways to convey emotion—the stoop of his posture, the rubbing of his hands, and his eyes, which are often downcast and empty but occasionally flash with an intensity (as they do at the end of his confession monologue early in the film) that suggests danger and unpredictability.
The revelation of his work may have also overshadowed the impressive gallery of performances surrounding him. Yoakam, known at the time only as a musician, turns in a frighteningly authentic portrait of slimy, brutal insecurity—Vaughn calls him “a monster,” and it’s not hyperbole, which Yoakam manages to suggest in manners both large and small. The late John Ritter is rather wonderful in a performance that is quiet and sensitive yet slyly funny, while Canderday’s work had always escaped my appreciation until this most recent viewing (she has a late-night kitchen chat with Karl where the delicacy of the writing is matched only by the understated playing). And young Lucas Black is remarkable; Karl’s friendship with the young boy is tricky, requiring charm and genuine affection without any undertones of inappropriateness, and if that delicate balance isn’t achieved, the whole picture falls apart. Black solves the problem by playing his scenes absolutely straight-forward, without a hint of cutesiness or pathos, and their closing scene manages to play emotionally without descending into easy sentimentality.
Sling Blade put Thornton forward as one of the many promising directors of the mid-1990s indie scene; it was also among the last releases of Miramax’s golden period, before their pursuit for Oscar gold and easy profits led the brothers Weinstein to take less frequent risks on chancy films like this one. His next two directorial credits were both for Miramax, and he would probably be hard-pressed to pinpoint which had a more disappointing result; his muddled but enjoyable Southern comedy Daddy and Them (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) went not even direct to DVD, but direct to cable, while his film version of Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses (which he only directed) went though a production and editing process which could politely be called “troubled” (for what it’s worth, I rather liked that highly-scorned picture as well).
He hasn’t written or directed since, and we’re poorer for it. Even in this, his directorial debut, Thornton’s filmmaking is mature and patient; he tends to hold his scenes and monologues out in long, unbroken takes, trusting the audience (and his screenplay) to focus on the words and take in the compositions, rather than breaking the deliberate pace with choppy edits and pushy framing. His compositions are carefully chosen—during a scene of verbal and physical abuse in Linda’s living room, Thornton stays in a wide shot, with Karl seated in the lower corner, listening and barely reacting, while a later shot stays over Doyle’s shoulder as he apologizes to Linda, Karl, and Frank, recognizing that our primary point of interest in the scene is Frank’s angry reaction, and shooting and editing accordingly. This no-cutaway method of shooting does cause a couple of scenes (like a rambling, post-jam conversation scene with Doyle’s thrown-together “band”) to run on a bit too long, but never to a point of distraction. In fact, from its startling opening scenes to the matter-of-fact brutality of its climax, Sling Blade is a film that never steps wrong—it is a rich, textured, terrific picture.