by Paul Deeter
For a filmmaker it takes some confidence to direct a first film, to start a career and hit the ground running on the first try. It's no easy task to establish yourself in the film industry. I've certainly had the occasional opportunity arise, but it took work to get a foot in the door. Even with some our greatest directors, it took some confidence to get good at the craft. Martin Scorsese was famously criticized for his first film Boxcar Bertha... Director John Cassavetes told him after he completed Boxcar Bertha: "You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit." There is no guarantee that audiences will take to your initial creation too, sometimes it takes some aging for a movie to dust off its imperfections or gather more appreciation over time. Billy Bob Thornton already had a name for himself by 1996, he'd acted in a few spots mostly supporting roles in TV starting in 1985. It was in 1996 that he took audiences and critics for a huge surprise, in the independent classic Sling Blade. The risk Thornton took was one that would establish his name as a serious director and an acting talent. This required a lot of confidence, and Sling Blade is a confident feature. It feels modern after almost 25 years, and has one of the most understated depictions of mental trauma in an independent feature. Thornton excels here, not just in his performance of Karl Childers, but in his timing and intentionally careful pacing. This is a movie in the realm of being a classic, but at the same time without a spot in the Criterion Collection or too many ways to access this title outside of streaming, I feel like it's worth shining a light on this film, I reckon.
The film has a Southern sweat to it, as it was filmed in Benton, Arkansas with a quiet focus on the living conditions and quiet lifestyles of its inhabitants. We are introduced to Karl not through any flashbacks or narration, but in a distinctively vulnerable scene when he is being interviewed on the day of his release from psychiatric care. What's peculiar about this scene is it directly follows a quiet confrontation Karl has by another patient, where he noticeably shows discomfort while the patient tells a story of dark assault to try and get a rise out of Karl. The second peculiarity is the interviewer is a younger woman, who patiently listens to Karl recap his past murder of his mother and a man who assaulted her. This was 25 years ago, when he was only 12 years of age, and the crime he commited seems so beyond his mental capacity it remains a fleeting, insignificant memory.
This is our introduction to Karl, and the film doesn't sugarcoat the fact that Karl committed severe crimes, even as a kid. He's a deeply troubled individual, with a reserved expression of contemplation, hiding his true nature behind a quiet presence. It's this behavior that lets him fit back into working a fair job in repairs, and also allows him to build up a friendship with a young boy, about the age Karl was when he was committed. Through this friendship he also makes a connection with Karl's mother Linda and some other local characters who struggle with their lives in the small but brutal town. While the movie doesn't attempt to completely hide his crimes from the small town, he is eyed warily but accepted simultaneously. If there's one complaint I have with this film, it's that Thornton allows Karl to be homed by a young mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) and a 12-year old son, Frank (Lucas Black). They don't know his true history, but they knew he was institutionalized, and Linda's friend Vaughan played by John Ritter (who's hiding his gay identity in a harsh and assuming town) knows more than he lets on. Vaughan approaches Karl of his past while confiding in him about his secret, and Karl seems to acknowledge his sentence without providing details about the murders. I would think Vaughan would be suspicious enough to dig deeper into his past and warn Linda and her son. Or if he did know more than he let on, I'd be curious as to why he didn't stress his concern more. Vaughan does go on to accept Karl though, as does most of the town, except Doyle.
Doyle is a monster as Vaughan rightfully puts it portrayed evilly by Dwight Yoakam he is verbally and occasionally physically abusive to Linda and her son. He violently controls Linda to do everything around the house and manipulates her into letting him back into her life. Vaughan is aware but powerless to this abuse, as is Frank, from his young age. The only unknown is Karl. Karl doesn't stand up to Doyle, as he never oversteps his ground as a guest of their home and also out of respect to their family. He is approached assertively by locals time from time, interrogated and questioned by the town he now occupies. But he shows respect, or if not respect, a quiet respectful lack of understanding. Karl is trouble but not simple minded. He's been through trauma and caused tragedy, with some question as to whether or not he was truly justified for doing so. But he harbors good behavior around his hosts, shows true skill at his new lawn mower repair job, and responds to questions slowly but appropriately. This is what makes Karl so unpredictable, where the audience can sense violence still remaining or the threat of harm. We get the vibe of a "Frankenstein's monster playing with the young flower girl" situation when Karl spends time with Frank. But the movie doesn't go there, and almost never goes to show an ugly side of Karl at all. In fact in rewatching the film I was surprised by just how restrained his character comes to be, and it wouldn't be too far left field to argue Karl acts heroically in the final act which I won't spoil. He even makes peace with Vaughan in a vulnerable moment which Karl admits to how good of a man he is, despite his sexual orientation and his beliefs. In his simple way, Karl seems to get through to Vaughan in a way he'd never been talked to before and it's one of my favorite scenes.
But like I said, I won't spoil the ending for the audience. I'll just say it's both truly ironic and simultaneously well-earned. The journey lies in the solid pacing Thornton provides us with the build up of tension in long one-shot confrontation scenes between Doyle and Linda and moments of humanity and peace outside of them. This whole while the audience has to wonder Karl's intentions. In a brilliant move, Billy Bob Thornton sits Karl down in the foreground with his troubled gaze and quiet presence while Linda is threatened and yelled at in anger behind him. Is he planning to step in when things get too heated? Or is he simply uninvolved both physically and mentally. It's the intention of the film to start by exposing Karl's crimes, and by doing so they've set up the unknown and ambiguous nature of his well-being. But the film is never cruel to his character, or characters who suffer from mental-illness. His disturbed nature is more due to his childhood abuse than his crimes, and in a poignant third act moment he gets his father-son ideal moment: a hug shared with Frank just before things get too dark.