Sling Blade

Memphis Flyer

DIRECTED BY: Billy Bob Thornton

REVIEWED: 02-09-98

There is a redeeming crude honesty to Sling Blade, the somewhat mannered 1996 film that earned a screenwriting Academy Award for star/writer/director, down-home auteur Billy Bob Thornton, whose real name, come to think of it, would have suited the circumstances of this homely but touching little tale – part domestic drama, part sitcom, part horror story – as well as the name actually given the main character. Carl, he is called – as if this were some Dr. Frankenstein flick set in Central Europe instead of in central Arkansas, where this low-budget oddity got put together, both spiritually and actually.

Of course, the presence in the movie of the likes of Robert Duvall, John Ritter, Dwight Yoakum, and J.T. Walsh indicates that there was a certain in-group high seriousness associated with Sling Blade from the very beginning. Clearly, it was destined to be at the very least a cult film; that it got somewhat further in the world’s estimation is an indication of how well it transcends its built-in limitations.

When we first see a young middle-aged Carl, he is presented as a backwoods “retard,” who has just been pronounced cured and is being released from the state hospital, where he landed as a young boy after hacking to death his mother and her lover when he mistook their furtive coupling for something else. We learn all this from Carl himself in a monologue that sounds in part like a Writer’s Workshop dissertation read aloud and serves also to introduce us to Carl’s characteristic tics – a ritualistic “Mmmmm, hmmmm” that allows him to play Greek chorus to himself and the periodic verbal refrain “All right, then.” In between these sounds, he manages to get out a fair share of homespun apercus and some self-conscious-sounding gag lines. (“Are you well now?” asks a character to whom he has confessed the circumstances of his incarceration. “I feel all right. Mmmmm, hmmmm,” he replies.)

Add to this Carl’s studiedly hunchbacked posture, mechanical loping gait, and prognathously out-thrust jaw, and you have the makings of a caricature – Forrest Gump meets Texas Chain-Saw Massacre.

Except that the people and the situations of Sling Blade, even when most cartoony, resonate with depths beyond the ordinary and the obvious, the same way as do the grotesqueries in the short stories of the late great Flannery O’Connor.

Not to spoil the ending, Carl’s attempts to live among “normal” townsfolk – who, of course, turn out to be even more star-crossed and off-center than he is – end either tragically or with reassuring appropriateness, depending on how you want to look at it. He reconnects to his past, anyhow, in a terse, grimly effective scene, and becomes (pick one) an avenger, a destroyer, or a healer. Want to go for all three? All right, then.

--Jackson Baker

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