Sling Blade

Thornton's 'Sling Blade'

My review of Sling Blade is late because at first it didn’t seem worthwhile reviewing an unresisting imbecility. But the movie has proved to be not only a resisting but a triumphant imbecility: great reviews from the best critics, enduring box office, Oscar nominations and awards. So...

I consider this film not only undramatic and fraudulent but a lot closer to immorality than the sort of schlock that stars Stallone or Schwarzenegger, for at least their movies never pretend that violent solutions are heartwarming. In Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial debut, which he wrote and in which he also stars, an emotionally and mentally stunted man, Karl Childers, released from the asylum where he had been sent as a youngster for killing his abusive mother and her boyfriend, boards with and befriends a widow and her small son. As the widow’s lover, Doyle, becomes increasingly abusive toward mother and son, we sense that Karl will kill again. After about ninety minutes of screen time, he does. What could possibly justify such uncomplicated inevitability? Greek tragedy holds no surprises either, but poetry, powerful characterizations, and a sense of the inextricable weave of human interaction and divine justice are worth more than suspense. No one expects Thornton to be Sophocles, but does Sling Blade offer anything substantial in place of suspense?

If the boyfriend’s abuse were shown to be truly horrendous and unstoppable by legal means, then his murder by Karl-who doesn’t want to kill again and who even refrains from killing his own abusive father-could be shown to be a kind of self-sacrifice, a reluctant surrender to violence in order to free loved ones from their torment.
But, as written by Thornton and played by Dwight Yokum, the boyfriend doesn’t come across as a real menace but only as a whiny, foulmouthed creep who by no means overawes his plucky girlfriend. Even the little boy, bopping empty beer bottles off Doyle’s head, manages at one point to drive the bully out of the house. In fact, never does Doyle seem to be the "monster" that a supposedly reliable friend of the family describes and that Thornton, apparently, wants us to take Doyle for.

Or is that supposed to be the point: that Karl’s simplicity leads him to use violence to resolve a complicated domestic situation that really needed the law or psychological counseling? Is Sling Blade, then, not a vigilante-melodrama but an ironic tragedy? If you believe that, look at the way Karl is photographed in the concluding twenty minutes and listen to the songs on the soundtrack. In an aura of golden light as he stands communing with his soul on a bridge and buoyed up by country western songs praising love and redemption, Karl is being told (by God?) that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Forrest Gump has morphed into Shane.

The giveaway here is the characterization of the mother, Linda. We all know that an otherwise admirable woman may have a masochistic streak that could put her into a sadist’s clutches. But, neither in the script nor in Natalie Canerday’s performance is any weakness or masochism indicated. Linda comes off as rather stupid and self-deceiving but also plucky and self-possessed. Why then doesn’t she give Doyle his walking papers? At one point, she tells her son that she’s waiting for her boyfriend to get tired of her so he won’t stalk her after she quits him. But does the sad-sack Doyle really seem to be the stuff of which stalkers are made? It seems to me that Billy Bob Thornton wants to have it both ways (a suspiciously Hollywood-ish trait in a supposedly maverick filmmaker). He wants to portray Linda as a woman in danger so that we will applaud Karl’s violence in defense of her and the boy. But he doesn’t want to put yet another weak, needy woman on screen lest he be accused of being one more smug, paternalistic filmmaker.

Thornton’s direction is so crude and uninventive that it has been praised as economical and rigorous by critics who should know better. In one scene at a supper table, the very character for whom the scene exists-a retarded woman whom Linda is trying to fix Karl up with-is placed in a spot so dim that the actress can’t even make her character’s reactions register. Thornton does show some directorial promise in the opening sequence at the mental institution, and the murder scene is well done, with the fatal blows landing just below camera range and two sickening thuds telling us all we need to know.

As a writer, Thornton has already shown a lot more than promise when collaborating with Tom Epperson. One False Move, a melodrama with rich characterizations and heart-stopping action (and a top-notch performance by Thornton as a very different sort of killer), superbly directed by Carl Franklin, was the best American movie of 1992. A Family Thing, though a tad too nifty in its plot maneuvers, had lovely idiomatic dialogue and juicy roles for Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. Even in Sling Blade, Thornton provides himself with a well-written monologue that explains how Karl came to kill his mother. Describing the murder weapon, Karl repeats word for word the phrase, "Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a Kaiser blade," and the effect is both pathetic and scary. But, for the most part, we’re stuck with dialogue like, "I sure like the way you talk." "Well, I like the way you talk."

Playing Karl, Thornton is perfect, but so what? Why should a performance be hailed or Oscar-nominated when it consists of nothing more than protruded lower lip, dogged walk, and unvaried vocal monotony? Such perfection is robotic. The rest of the cast is mediocre except for an unsettling cameo by J. T. Walsh as a rapist who tries to buddy up with Karl in the nut house. (Naturally, Saint Karl gets to tell him off before the final credits roll.)

Since Sling Blade is something of a Southern Gothic, the name of Flannery O’Connor has been trotted out by some reviewers by way of approving comparison. What piffle! O’Connor was a relentless artist and a particularly grim (almost Jansenistic) contemplator of human folly. She would have taken this story and shown that every character in it had a stake in the impending crime and therefore a share of the blame. O’Connor never let anyone off the hook while Thornton points an accusing finger only at the most obvious villain in sight. No wonder the audience of moviemakers on Oscar night stood up to applaud Thornton when he went up to get his writing award. A sling blade may be made of steel but this Sling Blade is, at its center, all mush. And what’s more dear to the collective Hollywood heart than mush?

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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