Billy Bob Thornton's richly observed Sling Blade opens with a prologue that can only be described as its own small film, a laconically eerie sequence that, as the rest of Sling Blade unfolds, begins to take hold in the memory like a particularly dense nightmare.
As Daniel Lanois' quietly atmospheric score settles in, we find the childlike, semiretarded Karl Childers, played by writer-director Thornton, rigidly perched at the window of an asylum for the criminally insane somewhere in Arkansas, wearing a face that looks at first like a child's imitation of the mentally retarded: heavy underbite, weird half-smile, burrowing eyes. Karl stares straight ahead, paying no heed to a chatty fellow inmate (J.T. Walsh) who enjoys talking about his sex crimes. It's difficult to determine who's creepier.
In the meantime, two high school girls are preparing to interview Karl, who is scheduled for release after 25 years. The administrator hesitantly preps the girls (and, of course, the audience), so by the time Karl sits down for the interview, we don't know whether to expect alienating horror or just pure unease. Then, in a thick backwater growl that, like his expression, initially comes across as hideous mimicry, Karl recounts matter-of-factly how he killed his mother and her lover with the weapon of the movie's title (a sharp-edged instrument used to cut weeds). In the eyes of a young Karl, his mother was committing an unpardonable sin, so his fateful action was the ironic result of his parents' religiously fanatical, abusive upbringing: In their eyes, Karl was a punishment from God. Thornton delivers Karl's stark history in one long, uninterrupted, darkly lit take; what's mesmerizing about it is how the character's strange, deep voice actually warms us to Karl, despite the unpleasantness of the incident. It's as if time and solitude have filled his gravelly voice with honest, numbing regret.
As the prologue ends and Karl is practically pushed out the door of the asylum, Lanois' buzzing mood music becomes plaintive piano, and we see Karl wandering around, a free man. We're fearful what this incarcerated killer's impact will be on the community, but it soon becomes apparent that it's Karl who is uncomfortable rejoining society, and at the end of his first free day, he returns to the asylum because it's the place he knows best. It's home.
Eventually Karl is set up with employment at a local fix-it shop (he's good with small motors, maybe because they sound like his speech), and a chance meeting with a friendly, curious boy named Frank (Lucas Black) leads to Karl's being taken in by Frank and his single mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday). Before long, Karl is part of a family again, and through that seemingly impenetrable gaze and sparse, monotone delivery we can sense in him a certain tranquility, especially when he's around Frank, who treats him like a little brother or faithful pet.
The trouble is, Karl doesn't realize he's vying for a role that has two other contenders, and the ring is starting to get crowded. First, there's Linda's boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), an intolerant, quick-tempered layabout who, when not spouting off after a booze-ridden tear, can sweet-talk Linda until she simply ignores his clear distaste for her son. Then there's Linda's boss and best friend at work, Vaughan (John Ritter), a gay man who is so concerned for Linda's and Frank's well-being that he takes Karl to lunch (a great deadpan scene) to make sure Karl is, well, all right, having come from an asylum and all. Karl just sits expressionless, as he often does, every once in a while letting off a polite non sequitur in that guttural drone, usually about how he likes biscuits or French-fried "taters."
One thing becomes certain, though, over the course of the movie: What Karl sees in Doyle, he doesn't like, and he may have to do something about it. While the battle over this lower-middle-class family had already been actively engaged before Karl's appearance, Karl's calm yet firm presence and obvious affinity for Frank cause everyone to rethink their motives, their actions, and their lives. In true melodramatic form, Sling Blade wends its way toward inevitable tragedy, but not before it has fully fleshed out a searing, darkly humorous, and achingly thoughtful story of reckoning and human charity.
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Thornton, who co-wrote (with sometime collaborator Tom Epperson) two of recent memory's finer Southern-tinged dramas, One False Move and A Family Thing, has an incredible ear for the way blue-collar characters communicate, particularly in confrontational or uncomfortable situations. His dialogue is easygoing and colorful without being archly cornpone or cartoonish--it's the poetry of drawl (too often it feels as though Hollywood's view of Southern characters is that everybody talks like a wacky sheriff). As a writer, Thornton likes to put different eccentrics together to see what happens, but he never strains believability. A kind yet naive single mother, a lonely son, an abusive boyfriend, a semicloseted gay man, and a quiet, mysterious killer sound like a convenient package for fireworks, yet Thornton pulls off this unwieldy domestic theater as if it were the most natural setup and lets his movie build with a brooding mixture of hope and dread.
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.
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.