Viking Night: Sling Blade
By Bruce Hall
September 13, 2012

Serial killers never super-size their meals.

Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) is a mentally disabled man, institutionalized at the age of 12 for murdering his mother and her lover. That probably makes him sound like a bad guy, but Karl is a quiet man with a hesitant gait and a disquieting catalogue of nervous twitches and tics. His voice is a gravelly brogue not unlike a hillbilly voice synthesizer, and when he tells his story it comes across as a tragic and powerful tale of woe, like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Disgusted by their son’s handicap, his parents forced him to live in a tool shed, and live off scraps like an animal.

With nothing but a Bible to read and his own thoughts for company, Karl grew up a very literal man. When he discovers someone other than his father being intimate with his mother, he kills the stranger. Then, when he discovers that his mother was into it he kills her too, in an enraged fit of pre-adolescent betrayal (the film's title is derived from the name of the weapon he used to commit the crime). Since this isn’t Texas, nobody’s as interested in executing a mentally challenged boy as they are in locking him away in a rubber room forever.

It's been a hard knock life for poor Karl.

On his release, Karl concludes there's no place for him in the world and tries to return to the hospital. Moved by this, his doctor helps him find a job in town, where Karl’s experience working on small engines pays off. Things go well at first, but he’s still unable to assimilate into society. But, being not unlike a child himself, Karl befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black), whose father has recently died. The two become friends, and Frank's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) even puts his new friend up in the garage. Everything's coming up roses for Karl, but we know it can't last, or there'd be no story here. This brings us to Linda’s boyfriend, a hard drinking, abusive freeloader named Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), who takes an instant disliking to Karl.

Doyle's a bitter guy with a black soul, full of sputtering hatred and anger. He abuses Frank's mother and is dismissive and cruel to Karl and the boy. There's no ambiguity about who the villain is in Sling Blade, and I might find Doyle to be over the top if I'd never been to a trailer park before. It's also pretty clear where the conflict is going to be - Linda's friend Vaughan (John Ritter), who is gay, warns Karl to stay away for his own good. But Karl relishes his adopted family life, and chooses to stay. It doesn't take long for things to get ugly, and I guess the setup is pretty obvious. You might even have already guessed how this is going to turn out, since the plot is as transparent as an Aesop’s fable.

There isn't a man woman or child on earth who's safe from Doyle's anger and for him, Karl's disability and Vaughan's orientation are just too much fun to resist. And of course, there turns out to be more to Karl than his love of French fries and Scripture. He's got a very simplistic sense of ethics which dictates both his actions, and the overall direction of the film. Sling Blade is a tug of war between light and dark impulses. Its confined, rural setting and all practical sets give it the intimate feel of a grungy, low budget play. It’s powerful stuff, and you’d have to have a heart as hard as Doyle’s not to get sucked in.

The credit for that goes to Thornton, who writes, directs and stars in this remarkably effective parable about the things good and evil have to have in common to be what they are. There are eddies of morality all through Sling Blade, along with a broad emphasis on tolerance. Karl, of course, must reconcile with his past. Doyle is the one with the real disability; walking around with that kind of anger is a lonely way to live, and a crushing burden on those around you. Yes, it hangs around about 15 minutes too long and it dabbles a bit much in artifice, but Sling Blade tells a pretty compelling story about some pretty compelling people.

What could easily have been an overly sentimental fluff piece boasts a pretty tight script that at times wanders near the edge of credibility, but rarely past it. The performances are much the same. When Karl first speaks, you'll chuckle at his underbite and frown at his off putting habits. But Thornton opens with a gripping monologue from the mind of a confused boy, betrayed by his parents and ostracized by his peers. You hear a lonely man who should be bitter, but knows the Bible pretty well and holds himself accountable for his actions. Forgiveness and atonement are the name of the game here, and If anyone should be as angry as Doyle it's Karl - but he’s not.

And speaking of Doyle…people...Dwight Yoakam can freaking act. I couldn't name even one of his songs but brother, can he deliver a line. The late John Ritter has little to do but bring dignified charm to Vaughan, but this he does, and he does it well. And Lucas Black, who grew up to be Fast and Furious, isn't half bad. Come to think of it, he probably turned in what remains the best work of his career sitting at Billy Bob Thornton's feet, kicking at the dirt and being convincingly conflicted. But it’s the story that drives things forward here, and the actors’ jobs are made easier by a great screenplay that pulls at your heart just hard enough to hurt without yanking it out altogether.

My primary criticism of Sling Blade is a silly one, but it happens to be a pet peeve. There’s a LOT of eating in this film. In over half the scenes, someone is eating something. This has the unintended effect of accentuating the unrealistic way actors pick at their food in scenes where they might be called upon to speak. What’s worse is that the film takes place in rural Arkansas, where the food is heavy and delicious, so nobody actually eats like that. Someday my favorite director is going to be whoever can coach performers on how to eat realistically on screen and still deliver their lines.

A small quibble, but it is what it is. I’ve never sat in front of a plate of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and picked at it like a debutante, and neither have you.

On the whole, Sling Blade is essentially just another "special person changes lives" movie. On many levels it’s not much different than Rain Man, or Forrest Gump. Or What's Eating Gilbert Grape. This certainly isn't the first time you've seen this film, or some variation of it. But it’s one of the better examples and when something works, it works. And Sling Blade works - it is moving, gripping, and full of heart. You care when the right characters are wronged, and you feel smug satisfaction when justice is done. It gets a little carried away from time to time, but redemption and self discovery are hard to pull off without a little cheese. You should forgive both Karl and Sling Blade for their shortcomings, because they both deserve your admiration.