Sling Blade

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Billy Bob Thornton

REVIEWED: 06-20-97

Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall. (R, 135 min.)

So you thought you were talking funny after seeing Fargo, yah? Well, Billy Bob, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wait until you experience Sling Blade. Not only will it take some time to get your speech right again, it'll be a good while before you get your mind right again. That's how deeply Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade gets under your skin and soaks right through to the tributaries in your skull. Thornton, who wrote, directed, and stars in Sling Blade, has created an unforgettable character and situation, a film that's sure to become an American classic. It's something of a Southern gothic tale populated with characters who might have stepped over from a Carson McCullers story. Thornton plays Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man with a distinctive speech pattern who, at the start of the film, is involuntarily released from an asylum for the criminally insane where he has spent the last 25 years for the crime of killing two people. He returns to the small Southern town of his birth where he is befriended by a young boy named Frank (Black), who is probably about the same age as Karl was went he was sent away and is also the first person to accept this strange child/man without judgment. Frank and his mother Linda (Canerday) take Karl into their home, a shelter that is darkened by the abusive, alcoholic violence that pours forth from Linda's ever-encroaching boyfriend Doyle (Yoakam). The situation forces Karl into a moral dilemma, which he confronts with all the understanding of good and evil that his simple mental capacity and warped religious background can bear. A virtuosic showcase for the talents of Billy Bob Thornton (a fact that has not escaped Academy voters who nominated Thornton in dual Oscar categories), the success of Sling Blade nevertheless stems from so much more than Thornton's efforts alone. Sling Blade is a character-driven story, dependent on so many vivid performances and original characters. John Ritter (Thornton's co-star in the short-lived TV series Hearts Afire) delivers a career-great performance as Linda's best friend and ineffectual protector, a closeted gay man trying to live unobtrusively in this small Southern town; Dwight Yoakam is, at first, virtually unrecognizable as Linda's despicable cur of a boyfriend; and not until I saw the end credits was I able to see that it was Robert Duvall (the original Boo Radley figure) who portrayed Karl's disheveled, besotted hull of a father. In addition to figures such as Jim Jarmusch showing up in a cameo as a Tastee Cream counter clerk and J.T. Walsh lending his distinctive brand of eccentricity to the proceedings, musicians such as Vic Chesnutt and local luminary Ian Moore make priceless appearances as members of Doyle's godawful backyard band. Although it might be argued that Sling Blade could withstand a touch of judicious trimming and that the plot occasionally strains the boundaries of realism, these things do not mar the awesome achievements of the movie in the least. With an aim that's true, Sling Blade plants one right between the eyes.

4.0 stars

--Marjorie Baumgarten

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