May 14, 2008
Sling Blade (1996)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh

What it's about. Karl (Billy Bob Thornton) has spent most of his life in a state institution. His childhood wasn't much fun either. He was forced to live alone in a shed, where he kept to himself and became socially backward. One day he heard a commotion in the house, entered it, and found a stranger having sex with his mother. He killed them both with a blunt instrument.

Now, decades later, he is released into society. He returns to his Southern hometown, and lands a job as a lawnmower repairman. He befriends pre-teenager Frank (Lucas Black), whose attractive single mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) is struggling to make ends meet. Linda's employer, Vaughan (John Ritter), helps her out, but she also relies upon her abusive boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Vaughan, Frank, and Linda are all afraid of Doyle and what he might do. But Karl finds the solution to their problems.

How others will see it. Sling Blade received much notoriety, to the benefit of Billy Bob Thornton, who served as lead actor, director, and sole screenwriter. Thornton remains best known for Sling Blade, and for becoming (briefly) the husband of Angelina Jolie, in her pre-Brad Pitt days. He was also the lead in a Coen brothers film, The Man Who Wasn't There. His career as a director generally ended with his next film, All the Pretty Horses, a box office flop.

How I felt about it. Sling Blade reminds this critic of the sequels to Pyscho. Norman Bates is the mother-killer psycho deemed sane and released into the world, where he appears as timid as a mouse. Until he kills again. Which is what we've been waiting for, and (unfortunately) even hoping for.

Psycho II was a drama. Pyscho III was a comedy. The original Psycho was a dark comedy that pretended to be a drama. So, what is Sling Blade? It has the story of Psycho II, and it poses as a drama. But comedy is omnipresent, whether it is intentional or not.

We are disarmed by a man who loves such simple pleasures as a basket of french fries, and whose murky concept of life is based on the Bible and a handful of other miscellaneous books he has read. Karl's atonal voice, extended silence, unexpressive face, and stiff body language mark him as a retarded man.

This misconception allows him to be accepted in society. A helpful retarded man? Okay. A weirdo with a history of crushing skulls with gardening tools? Not okay. Even when told that he is a double murderer, people still judge him by his cover: a harmless retard.

One has to wonder, who is worse? Doyle, who abuses people but doesn't actually injure them, or Karl, who plots (and commits) murder against those whom he believes deserve it.

Doyle is a jerk. Karl is gentle. Therefore, Doyle is the villain, and Karl is a hero. But regardless of how we are supposed to feel, the lines aren't drawn as clearly. After all, Karl is the one who has spent his life in a shed and an institution. Doyle may not even have a criminal record.

But Doyle is a sociopath. He wants Linda. Therefore, he deserves her, and all for himself, without having to share her with an insolent kid, a wimpy homosexual, and a taciturn ex-mental patient. His inability to balance his needs with those of others is certain to lose Linda, and all his other relationships, sooner or later.