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Sling Blade (1996)

July 14th, 2008 · 9 Comments

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Synopsis
“I reckon what you is wantin’ to know is what I’m doin’ in here. I reckon the reason I’m in here is because I killed somebody.” After explaining to a school reporter why he killed his mother and her lover at the age of twelve with a sling blade, mentally challenged Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) is set free. He picks up some “french fried taters” and meets 13-year-old Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) when he helps the boy tote some laundry home. Reckoning he “don’t care nothin’ about being a free man” Karl asks to be let back in the institution. The warden finds him a job repairing small engines with a mechanic (Rick Dial) who lets Karl sleep in the shop.

Karl goes to visit Frank, a nervous kid whose father committed suicide and whose mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) has taken up with the emotionally retarded Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakum). Karl’s voice relaxes Frank, and his mother invites him to stay in the garage. Linda’s best friend and manager at Hoochy’s Dollar Store, Vaughan (John Ritter) is gay and ends up identifying with his fellow outcast. Doyle doesn’t extend much hospitality Karl’s way, and as the bully becomes increasingly threatening toward Frank, Karl begins to reconsider his pledge never to kill anyone again.

Production history

Billy Bob Thornton grew up in Malvern, Arkansas and by 1981, ended up in Los Angeles with aspirations to be a musician, or maybe an actor. A job as a server brought him to the home of director Stanley Donen for a Christmas party, where a guest started talking to him. It turned out to be Billy Wilder. Thornton recalls, “He started telling me how ridiculous it was my wanting to be an actor, there’s so many actors out there. And he said, ‘Do you write?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, I came out here to do that also.’ So he told me that was what I needed to do, start creating my own characters and writing my own stories, make them different from the rest of the world to set myself apart.”

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After roles as the bailiff on Divorce Court and a fussy husband in Chopper Chicks In Zombietown, Thornton landed a bit part in the 1987 HBO movie The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains. Thornton recalls, “It was hot, and I had a conductor’s uniform on with a collar up to here. My part wasn’t going well because the director wanted me to overact. At lunch I was thinking how everyone else on the set was a real actor and I was a nobody. I started making faces at myself in the mirror and started talking in that voice. I looked so goofy, I just went, ‘Eeeewegh.’ Then I came up with the monologue, with the voice. I thought it was a pretty good character.”

Thornton performed his monologue and the character of Karl Childers in a stage variety show called Pearls Before Swine. George Hickenlooper – who’d directed the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – thought there was a movie in it. He wrote a short script titled Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade, raised $55,000 and with J.T. Walsh and Molly Ringwald joining Thornton, shot a 25-minute film in black and white. The short – which ultimately became the first half hour of Sling Blade – played the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994, but Hickenlooper failed to interest investors in financing a feature length version.

Karl Childers found a friend in Larry Meistrich, a small time producer with big time ambitions who in 1991 launched a film collective in New York called The Shooting Gallery. Thornton drafted a feature length script and Meistrich raised $890,000 from friends, family and investors. With Thornton opting to direct himself, Sling Blade was shot in Saline County, Arkansas over 24 days in the spring of 1995. It was put before distributors in a bull market of film acquisition, with rights to independent films like Shine or The Spitfire Grill selling for record sums. Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein put in a preemptive bid to acquire Sling Blade for $10 million.

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When released in November 1996, Sling Blade was greeted with universal acclaim from critics. Thornton received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Actor, and another for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he won. The film rode a wave of critical accolades, awards and a marketing push from Miramax to gross $24 million in the U.S. Echoing advice Martin Scorsese had given him while considering whether to trim his running time, Thornton recalls, “Sling Blade was the last movie that I ever had anything to do with where no one said a word about doing anything.”

Opinion

You can rattle off a list of reasons why a movie like this shouldn’t work – too long, too slow, too sentimental, too goofy a lead character – but Sling Blade is a classic in spite of all that because it unfolds with a narrative command and texture you’d expect in a novel from a promising first time author, not a movie from a first time director. The story is not one of surprises, but Billy Bob Thornton invests Karl Childers with such a disquieting awe that we could watch this character interact with folks at the Wal-Mart and be enthralled for two and a half hours.

As magnanimous a performance as he gives, Thornton resisted making this a one-man show and wrote interesting characters to orbit around Karl. As a director, Thornton cast those roles exceptionally well. Dwight Yoakum, John Ritter and then 12-year-old Lucas Black deliver some of the best screen performances of recent memory, and even director Jim Jarmusch and furniture store owner Rick Dial seem like they were born to play their parts. In spite of working nonstop as an actor, Sling Blade remains the summit of Billy Bob’s film career. Singer/ songwriter/ record producer Daniel Lanois provided the film’s sparse but effective guitar score.

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Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button writes, “I kept thinking of a phrase while watching the film: ‘poorly executed.’ Sling Blade has a lot of poorly executed scenes and sequences … But the film has some beautiful, beautiful moments. Moments where tears came to my eyes (but didn’t escape, I’d be a lot more positive if they’d gotten away). Thorton creates these beautiful relationships – not just his character and the kid, but his character and everyone (except Dwight Yoakam’s character). It’s just when he fills in the moments with a lot of useless talk.”

“Thornton tried to break the mould – and in some cases, he did indeed do that, especially when it comes to the realistic and un-Hollywood way of conveying a human drama to the audience – but he ended up causing the film more harm than good. The other people involved with the film do deserve acclaim, however – it does after all look and sound very good indeed. Daniel Lanois’ score elevates the film during more dramatic moments, and Barry Markowitz’s photography is fantastic,” writes Richard Booth at DVD Times.

Lord Summerisle at DVD Outsider writes, “Looking at this film at its original time of release must have excited many people in the coming of a fresh new and distinctive voice in independent themed American cinema. A film strong in its writing, directing and acting, as well as tackling difficult subject matter subtly and tactfully. The American South in particular must have thought that finally there was a contemporary voice in film to reflect their way of life without resorting to stereotypes and poor representation. Therefore it is sad to see Billy Bob not keeping to this high standard in recent endeavours.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Famous line · Midlife crisis · Small town

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jul 15, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    This is one of the few movies that I know I can never watch again. It’s not that I didn’t like it–I loved it–but it was just so very, very sad. The performances were incredible and the story fascinating. I do hope that Billy Bob will once again find it in him to write something else of this caliber.

  • 2 Daniel // Jul 15, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    I think I only saw it the one time, but I remember thinking, “This deserved to win whatever it was nominated for.”

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 15, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Maybe because I can’t think of any other possible ending for the movie, I didn’t find it sad. It was truthful. Billy Bob never directing again, that’s sad. At the very least we need to see a director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD.

    Daniel: Geoffrey Rush won Best Actor for Shine that year. Terrific actor, terrible movie. Thornton’s performance was a lot more monumental, at any rate, so we agree here. Thanks for commenting.

  • 4 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jul 16, 2008 at 11:15 am

    It wasn’t the ending that I found so sad. Doyle deserved what he got and Karl felt more at home being institutionalized. I found the interaction between him and his father to be very tragic. I think anyone who grows up in such a dysfunctional family would naturally feel more at home in an institution.

  • 5 christian // Jul 16, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    I totally agree. I so recall seeing this in the theater in Texas that I don’t need to see it again. A lovely film.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jul 16, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Christian: If you’re from Texas you can attest that there is a Karl in just about every town or suburban neighborhood even. Instead of sending people like him to the “nervous hospital,” down south they just live with family in the garage and do odd jobs for a living. It’s part of what I found very believable about the film.

  • 7 AR // Jul 22, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Haven’t seen it since it was out in the theatres. For whatever reason I’ve not had the desire to rewatch it since. But at the time, I thought it was a good film, fits well into the spectrum of Southern Gothic (though at the time I wasn’t really aware of or into the genre, despite having read Faulkner and Williams).

  • 8 nick // Dec 1, 2008 at 6:08 am

    The critic that thought this movie had a lot of awkward parts most likely also thought that “The English Patient” did not.

    Important difference between the two…”Slingblade ” didn’t suck, and I did not really notice awkward moments, and have studied film.

    Any first time attempt will have technical issues. The difference here is that this movie can really draw you in, if you let it, so that it’s power overcomes its few technicalities.

    It is a classic for everyone.

  • 9 Charles // Jun 19, 2010 at 8:00 am

    My wife and I found it on the IFC cable channel. We had seen it and were very impressed with it when it was released. It has a haunting quality to it, but that’s the mark of many great films. Billy
    Bob Thornton did an excellent job of directing,
    a slow but emotion and compassion packed film.
    12 year old Lucas Black desereved a nomination, doing a wonderful, sensitive job of acting.

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