Sling Blade (dir Billy Bob Thornton, 1996) is definitely not a formulaic Hollywood feature film. It has a strong theatrical feel to it throughout and this allows BBT some leeway with his approach. Many of the scenes have a fixed camera angle and are shot through the proscenium arch, with the actors very carefully blocked to ensure they can all be seen and can work together to move the story forward.
There are some missing steps in the linear narrative progression but it is still an engaging and very emotional movie, which even manages to be humorous in places.
BBT is Karl Childers, who has been in ‘The Nervous Hospital” for many years after killing his mother and her lover. Now released, he quickly befriends a kid – Frank – whose Mom, Linda, is being abused by her boyfriend, Doyle (played brilliantly by Dwight Yoakam). Although Karl seems gentle enough, his jutting jaw, strange voice and brooding face - as well as his much-discussed history - add tension throughout as we move towards the climax of the film.
Things that did not work quite so well
- The student interview at the beginning is far too expository – especially compared with some later subtleties. And why the lamplight?
- The mental hospital manager turning Karl loose without any clear idea of where he would go and then being surprised when it didn’t work out. He would never have let Karl stay at his house or left all his daughter’s toys on the bed! Cheap gags.
- We did not need Frank to say to Karl that he really wanted to kill Doyle. Too much of a sledgehammer. We already understood where this was going.
- The constant music (Daniel Lanois) at the beginning, whilst atmospheric and haunting, got on my nerves after a while.
- Frank’s mother goes from looking nervously at Karl in the store to suggesting that he move in with them in less than five minutes. This seems entirely implausible. Surely it would have been easy to write in a scene with Frank begging his Mom to let Karl stay with them? She would have known that Doyle would hate the idea. If we are to believe that Doyle is a monster, we need to see her showing fear over this.
- Vaughan is just slightly too stereotypical as the gay co-worker/family friend (even taking in account the age of the film). Apparently BBT wrote this part specifically for John Ritter. It adds some balance to the ensemble but misses the mark. I think Vaughan would have helped more during the fight with Doyle – surely he would not have been so cowardly?
- We do not really see the moment when Karl decides to murder Doyle – I think it would have been more satisfying for the audience if we witnessed the switch from Karl seeing no reason why he would kill again to planning this.
Things that worked well
- When we first learn about Karl’s double murder, it seems like an accident caused by his reduced mental capacity but as the film progresses we find out that he has been exposed to a major trauma (being forced to bury alive his prematurely born brother) and has undoubtedly been abused. The pacing allows time for us to absorb this horror once we have developed some empathy for Karl.
- High and wide camera angles gave this a bit of a voyeuristic/CCTV feel to some of the scenes.
- The way the music stops when he says “killed her”.
- The bad guys were really bad. Doyle is a very realistic manipulative/abusive drunk and J.T. Walsh is positively vile as a bragging paedophile. Robert Duvall as the father is also very convincing. Although I am not sure if we know whether he was mad before his wife was killed, we do get a strong sense in this scene of how Karl must have been brutalized as a child.
- Good quirky details: Karl’s love of “French fried potatoes”; his explanation for having the hammer when he crashed into Linda’s bedroom; the way BBT looks at the camera when he is walking down the street as if we are an observer – totally out of place with the rest of his behaviour; Jim Jarmusch as a Frostee Cream Boy hitting has hat on the top of the serving hatch; standing on the V of the bridge supports.
- The use of horizontal strips of shadow to half light faces.
- This film successfully uses stereotypes to explore themes of prejudice – the mentally challenged murderer who makes people nervous but then wins them over, inadvertently; the gay man ostracized by the church and struggling to assert himself; the mother desperate to find a father figure for her kid after her husband’s suicide, falling for the bad guy; the adorable kid, old beyond his years and troubled more than a child ever should be.
- Fantastic acting – it is hard to believe that Karl is BBT. Even if this film had nothing else to offer, it would be worth watching for this performance.
- For all the sadness and darkness in this film, the relationship between Frank and Karl is incredibly beautiful and uplifting.