Uptown Theatre, starts Friday
NATURE AND NURTURE have conspired to put a bushel basket between Karl Childers and the world. Born to rough beginnings and several seeds shy of a watermelon, he did a very bad thing as a stunned adolescent. Now, after years of seclusion in a "nervous hospital," he's out in the world again. And the drama of Sling Blade wants to be about how Karl still manages to shine a light from within his basket. It's about how a holy fool fools others.
The other drama of Sling Blade, however, is how a guy named Billy Bob Thornton got above his raisin' (and his name), and made a movie that has garnered him a couple Oscar nominations. As actor, writer, and director of Sling Blade, Thornton has come almost out of nowhere--apart from his memorable stint in Carl Franklin's One False Move--to charm Hollywood and now mass audiences. This means that however good his movie is, it also has to be recognized as a phenomenon, too. How many Billy Bobs have held that statue in the past?
I say all this because I'm charmed by Thornton's acting, and the performances of those around him, but I'm about plumb full of tales about blessed dumb innocents--or misunderstood geniuses too, for that matter. (Dueling Darwinian Film Festival of the future: Sling Blade/Shine, Forrest Gump/Little Man Tate.) Playing Karl Childers, the mother-killer with a heart of gold, Thornton's body language, roundabout dialogue, and guttural punctuations are mesmerizing. Every sentence he says is an unexpected backstep preparation for the one he should be saying, and within those sentences "I reckon" pops up as often as "ah-hemmmm" or plain old growly "mmmm." This makes for both an interesting character and a well-calculated route to stardom, and it's every bit as great as what Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man.
The uncanny thing about Sling Blade is that Thornton has led Karl out from the deep woods of his Southern Gothic context and then put him into a humdrum contemporary setting. The casual awkwardness of indie films mixes with tightly plotted thematic hints; the single mother and her closeted gay boss work at the local dollar store, in an atmosphere haunted by secrets and histories of abuse, and a simplistic sense of morality. Karl can read, but his personal library includes only the Bible,
A Christmas Carol, and "a book about how to be a carpenter." I'm surprised the town isn't named Nazareth or Gomorrah.
Still, mental hospitals and family cruelty remain with us whatever shallow turns pop culture might take, and Thornton deserves praise for refreshing the combination. His casting is especially notable: John Ritter plays the gay store manager (with a geek hairdo tuft and a vocabulary of half-baked therapisms); and Dwight Yoakam is Doyle, a heartless, confused redneck and the evil boyfriend of Linda (Natalie Canderday), who has taken Karl in. And Doyle is as much a piece of work as Karl--insulting others more often than he sweet-talks or apologizes to them, he's a living reminder of the desperation in a limited life. More than a story of redemption or retribution (on Karl's part), Sling Blade is really a story of what it's like to have no options and still have to make a choice.
So is this movie merely here to tell us that small towns suck, and Karl is the Bubba Buddha? Karl doesn't get blessed by fame as Forrest Gump was; Thornton doesn't make it that easy. But Sling Blade takes so many side trips on the route to convincing its audience of Karl's redemption that it nearly loses conviction along the way. Robert Duvall (who's here in a cameo) once played similar, Faulkner-derived parts in To Kill a Mockingbird and Tomorrow, but they were more like hints at moral accomplishments than a lesson. Maybe Karl--and Billy Bob Thornton--could learn something from that. I reckon.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.