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