Sling Blade
Rated R–language, violence

Billy Bob Thornton as Karl and Lucas Black as Frank in Sling Blade Called an American classic by Time magazine, Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade is assured a place on my list of all-time favorite films. Even Miramax publicity says it is "by turns mythic, biblical, and darkly humorous." "Biblical" to describe something not based on the Old or New Testament from a Hollywood publicity office? It's a near miracle.

The amazing thing is that Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote, directed, cast, and plays the lead part of a severely retarded man is the same Billy Bob who was John Ritter's sidekick on the late TV sitcom Hearts Afire. He also appeared frequently on the Burt Reynolds sitcom set—like Sling Blade—in Arkansas, Evening Shade.

A friend has compared Sling Blade to the novels of Flannery O'Connor, the Catholic author whose southern tales also had troubled characters at their centers. He sees the appearance of a gorilla suit in an early scene as a nod to O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, which had a character in a similar suit.

But unlike that character, Thornton's Karl Childers is neither an atheist nor amoral. In fact, he has such a fine sense of what's right and wrong that seeing it violated leads him to take dire remediations, as a juvenile killing his adulterous mother and her lover with a sling blade, for example, which led to his being sent to a mental institution for 25 years. Finally released as he's no longer seen as a threat to anyone's safety, he returns to the village where he grew up, though he knows no one there except his father, who wants nothing to do with him for having killed his mother.

Karl is befriended by a boy, Frank, of about the same age he was when his life took its fateful turn, and he soon takes the place of the boy's real father, who committed suicide. The boy's mother also takes a liking to Karl (one notices that the ethics of the mental hospital director, the mother, and her boss at the dollar store are strangely "Christian" long before we get to the baptism scene), though her boyfriend, the bullying Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam) is predisposed to dislike both sensitive boys like Frank and "retards," as he calls them, like Karl.

John Ritter plays the compassionate homosexual, Vaughan Cunningham, who befriends Karl and tries to protect Frank and his mother from Doyle. He's so much "in character" in the part that I found myself wondering where I'd heard the voice before, before placing him. Robert Duvall has a cameo as Karl's father, which I see as a nod to this film's best antecedent, the much-gentler but unforgettable Tender Mercies, in which Duvall had the leading role.

Ultimately, Karl is, despite his tremendous handicap, a self-made man in the sense that he knows what's right and is willing to act on his convictions, despite the lack of role models around him. And in the end he sacrifices himself for others, acting on love to rectify local wrongs.

This is the one to see even if you're seeing only one movie this season.

Photo by the film's distributor

1997, Jon Kennedy