A deep cut

Thornton's haunting, droll Sling Blade draws rich blood

The contemplative haul that Sling Blade is--it clocks in at more than two hours--is ultimately a refreshing one because Thornton is an extraordinarily confident filmmaker who is confident in his co-writer and actors. The film moseys without being poky and shows a strong, undiluted vision, taking its time to get where it's going but providing many rich, genuine touches along the way. Thornton has probably watched a lot of Clint Eastwood's films, most notably Unforgiven, which Sling Blade resembles in its themes of redemption and reckoning. The two filmmakers share many stylistic traits: deliberate pacing, respect for environment, dark and muted visuals, and sneaky humor.

Thornton is also able to draw rich, varied performances from his cast, especially his own one-of-a-kind portrayal of the cypherish, mythic, almost ghostly Karl, but also Canerday's simple, hospitable mom and country-music star Yoakam's Doyle, a smoldering, insecure lout of the first order. Sling Blade is perhaps the year's most impressive debut because it is an uncompromisingly told tale with a minimum of frills (Lanois' score being the woolliest thing about the movie). The movie is heartfelt without preaching, and it is keenly aware of how human contact can affect us at any moment, sometimes drastically. By the time Thornton has brought Karl and his movie full circle back to the asylum, the idea that Karl's life is one long sacrificial quest for inner peace and emotional justice has been studiously yet artfully made clear. The prologue is no longer a nightmare, and Sling Blade begins to achieve the resonance of a dream--Karl's dream.

Sling Blade.
Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, J. T. Walsh. Written by Thornton and Tom Epperson. Directed by Thornton. Opens Friday.

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