Sling Blade

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Billy Bob Thornton

REVIEWED: 06-06-97

Billy Bob Thornton is one of Hollywood's greatest undiscovered talents. Since the 1980s, Thornton has worked as a versatile character actor in such films as Tombstone, Dead Man, On Deadly Ground, Indecent Proposal and many others. Together with childhood friend Tom Epperson, Thornton has written scripts for two successful independent films. One False Move (a harsh film noir thriller set in the American South) and A Family Thing (a wry domestic drama about a racist Southern man who discovers his long lost, and very black, brother) were both widely praised by critics and received impressive theatrical releases. Nonetheless, the name Billy Bob Thornton remains a mystery to most moviegoers. Thornton's latest effort, Sling Blade, may just change all that. In addition to taking on the Wellesian effort of writing, directing and acting in this film, Thornton has assembled what is hands-down the finest ensemble cast of the year for a unique and utterly unexpected combination of his first two writing efforts.

Sling Blade mixes equal parts Halloween (a killer leaves a mental hospital and returns to his hometown--the site of murders he committed as a boy) and Tender Mercies (a homeless drifter moves in with a small town widow and her son--eventually becoming a role model/father figure for the boy). Thornton takes on the lead role of Karl, a mildly retarded man freed from a state institution after 25 years of incarceration for killing his mother and her young lover. With nowhere else to go, poor Karl drifts back to his hometown, a tiny burg in the backwoods of Arkansas. As fate would have it, Karl meets up with young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black). The boy takes a shine to the slow-talking stranger, and Karl soon moves in with Frank and his hard-working mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday). Certainly sounds like a fine setup for a "family in peril" slasher flick, eh? Sorry, but writer/director Thornton has much more than that up his sleeve. We realize, early on, that Karl isn't such a bad guy. He's much more akin to Forrest Gump than to Norman Bates. Karl was raised by a pair of very twisted religious zealots, who regularly tortured the boy and fed him their own warped version of "the Holy Scriptures." What Karl did in the past was only done because of a misguided sense of right and wrong. For all intents and purposes, he is "reformed."

There's only one problem. Linda's boyfriend Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam) is an abusive, beer-swilling good ol' boy who treats both Linda and her son horribly. Frank secretly wishes Doyle would "just die." Can you see where this is all leading? Thornton transforms this simple tableau into a complex religious and philosophical quandary. Will Karl sacrifice himself in order to provide salvation for the boy? Will this "reformed" man kill again?

As an actor, Thornton inhabits Karl like a second skin. His walk is slow and hunched over. His voice is hesitant and gravelly, like a cold engine trying to start. As a director, Thornton has the good sense to surround himself with some great actors. Natalie Canerday (from Thornton's first film One False Move) is perfectly cast as the good-hearted mother. John Ritter turns in one of his best performances as a gay family friend. And, with his eerily real bad guy performance, a thoroughly surprising Dwight Yoakam shows that his acting talents are as real as his singing talents. In the crucial role of Frank Wheatley, young Lucas Black is a revelation. Best known for his role as Caleb on the creepy CBS horror series "American Gothic," Black holds his own and in some ways surpasses his talented co-stars. As far as I'm concerned, Black is the most natural, talented child actor since Jodie Foster. Keep your eyes and ears open for this kid.

Do not miss your chance to see Sling Blade. It's being released just in time for Oscar consideration, and that I think is no coincidence. It is definitely one of the best films of the year. Here's hoping it doesn't become one of the most overlooked.

--Devin D. O'Leary

Sling Blade

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