Sling Blade (1996, Billy Bob Thornton)


Dramatic prestige pictures directed by and starring the same person are very often bad news; generally too long and self-indulgent, with an overemphasis on performance acrobatics by default, such projects seem to emanate most often from the likes of Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson and the results can be creepily direct evidences of oddly excused ego. It’s not that Sling Blade is much of an exception; supposedly born of practicality — writer / director / actor / producer Billy Bob Thornton is reported to have been advised to write and perform a story that took advantage of his rough, atypical, very un-movie star features — it is too long (in its original theatrical print or a director’s cut that adds about twenty minutes) and self-indulgent. But despite some contrivances, it’s also absorbing and well-directed — heavy on fluid master takes — and may benefit from Thornton’s relative relaxation. Never a celebrity like Warren Beatty or Clint Eastwood, he seems to allow his own inescapable involvement in every aspect of the film to be incidental to it; in other words, he is not the story.

The somewhat epic-sized film has considerable sweep and good-hearted sweetness on the order of something like Paris, Texas or, inevitably given its Southern setting, To Kill a Mockingbird — what could be cloying instead typically manifests, thanks to the performances, in aching and unguarded sincerity. We follow Thornton as Karl, a disabled introvert who murdered his mother and her lover at a very young age. Let out of an institution many years later, he takes a job fixing small motors in his former hometown, where he also befriends a young boy and his mother and becomes embroiled in their lives and involvement with a violent hick played by Dwight Yoakam. The third act dovetails into a bit of ugly symmetry that seems cruel and difficult to believe, but along the way the story is enchanting and even cathartic in its simplicity. Thornton’s screenplay is obvious, but almost never insultingly so.

His great achievement here, however, is his performance in the lead; it’s charming, believable, and warmly funny without being exploitative. He is able to wring a number of genuinely touching and comforting quirks out of the tragic figure he’s portraying, and that makes all the difference. The other characters are less important but are gamely presented all the same, in particular Lucas Black as the young boy Frank, the thwarted nature of whose world is perhaps the film’s most painfully believable construction. Robert Duvall makes a haunting impression in his sole scene as Karl’s apparently hermited father. The script doesn’t quite sufficiently explore Frank’s mother Linda, who simply fills in the cookie-cutter role of a movie mom in an abusive relationship, but Natalie Canerday does her best. And the late John Ritter, in a pivotal role as Linda’s closeted boss and dearest friend, is absolutely wonderful — suggesting immeasurable untapped potential in a career overstuffed with the likes of Problem Child and Three’s Company.

There are missteps; Yoakam’s character Doyle is pointlessly one-dimensional, an evil guy with no redeeming qualities and seemingly no human element, yet one whose constantly reported psychosis is stated rather than shown. He seems like a roundly awful person, but the film seems to take a leap in implying that he is enough of a dangerous monster to either warrant being so feared that no one feels they can escape his wrath, or in turn to justify Karl’s final action against him. He’s just a monster, and thus his place in the story makes very little sense; his girlfriend hates him, the boy hates him, his band hates him. Why does he exist? And why isn’t he more convincingly written, which could conjure up greater depth from the leisurely-paced story, too lengthy for such lazy characterization? The direct comic relief that spews from his ignorant dialogue, as opposed to the sly and subtle humor that comes out of the more vivid characters, is misplaced, especially in a long sequence about his incompetent patio band.

Then there is the climax — it’s easily predictable thirty minutes ahead of time, but you look forward to the emotional release it hopefully will provide. Instead it’s directly out of Badlands — strangely distant and dispassionate in a manner that doesn’t gel at all with the structure of the story or the perceived goal of the sequence. It’s rather an odd and severe miscalculation on Thornton’s part, a pointlessly glib sideline in an otherwise competently mounted film. Capping it off, Daniel Lanois’ score — an unholy cross between a lesser Eno album, Ry Cooder’s work on Paris, Texas and those synth-heavy scores Hans Zimmer recorded in the ’80s — is completely mismatched with the film; a less fitting musical accompaniment for it is hard to imagine.

But overall this is an enjoyable, if slight, movie with considerable visceral impact. The stereotyping is rampant and sometimes troubling (including of the gay character Vaughan, although he does remind me uncannily of someone I once knew who has, like Ritter, since died, which makes his performance even more poignant to me) but the key relationship of a boy and a stranger, unlikely as its acceptance in the film seems, has a ring of kindness and truth that makes the rest fall into place. And for Thornton’s lead performance alone, the movie is worth seeing and quite rewarding.

[Slightly altered from a review posted in 2007.]

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