Sling Blade (1996)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The first scene in “Sling Blade” lets you know that you’re in for something unique. It’s a remarkable monologue delivered by its lead character Karl Childers. Karl is mentally retarded, has a raspy voice, an overshot jaw, and a chilling story to tell. He has spent years in a mental institution after killing his mother and her lover. He is telling the story to a high school student for her newspaper and the only light in the room in which he tells the story is from a lamp. The lighting makes the scene even more chilling while he’s giving his monologue. But we also see the pain in Karl’s eyes as he tells it. It’s a great scene.

Karl is being let out into the world, because the doctors think he’s cured. He probably is. He’s not a killer; just a misunderstood human being. When asked if he could kill again, he says, “I reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.”

Karl Childers is one of the most memorable movie characters I’ve ever seen. Think of Forrest Gump crossed with a country man, give him a chilling back story, and you have a truly original character. He has little intelligence but feels pain and has a sort of sweetness to him. He also speaks and acts in a much distinctive way. Karl is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who also directed and wrote “Sling Blade,” with brilliance. He came up with the character, he notes, one day while shaving and practicing in the mirror, talking in a raspy voice. And Thornton makes “Sling Blade” a truly original, compelling, fascinating piece of work.

When he’s released, Karl finds work as a mechanic and befriends a boy named Frank (Lucas Black). Frank is a troubled boy whom Karl senses has a wounded spirit. He lives with a loving mother (Natalie Canerday), who lets Karl live in her garage. But Frank’s wounded spirit and troubles are caused by his mother’s boyfriend Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam), who is one of the slimiest characters in any movie. This is an example of Evil Personified. He lounges around the living room, has loud hurtful opinions about everyone, is abusive, and criticizes Frank very cruelly. Why the woman just doesn’t dump Doyle is beyond me, but whatever. Love is blind.

Another key character is Vaughan (John Ritter), a homosexual who is insecure about his sexuality but trying to accept it. He’s also a nice guy who looks out for Frank and his mother.

Even though I’m giving “Sling Blade” four stars, I have to admit I knew how the movie was going to end and what was going to happen. It became obvious when we have a character who has murdered in the past and another who might murder a boy and his mother. But it’s the way it’s all played out that grant the movie four stars instead of three-and-a-half. Everything else is great. The characters are well-developed, especially Karl who is, like I said, one of the most memorable movie characters. I enjoyed going along with Karl on his journey through the town—ordering French fries, going to work, and spending time with Frank and those around him. We see everything through Karl. We hardly stray away from him. Thornton is just wonderful as Karl—it’s the kind of performance that deserves recognition (and thankfully, it did). Lucas Black delivers one of the best child performances as far as I’m concerned (and that’s saying something, considering all the young talent that’s introduced year by year), John Ritter doesn’t hit a wrong note with his performance, and Dwight Yoakam is suitably (and memorably) slimy as the abusive Doyle.

“Sling Blade” is a fantastic movie. I loved almost every moment of it. Even the obvious destination isn’t overplayed, but just played. With great performances by the talented cast, excellent direction, and great writing, “Sling Blade” is a spellbindingly good film.

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