Opened: Friday, February 7, 1997 | Rated: R
How the hell do you get in the movie biz with a name like Billy Bob Thornton? How do you even get financing?
I kept asking myself these questions while watching "Sling Blade," a simple, thoughtful film that would have never been made with Hollywood money, even if Billy Bob Thornton was William Robert Thornton.
Thornton wrote, directed and starred in "Sling Blade" as a slow-witted but heartful asylum parolee whose adjustment to the outside world is aided by his friendship with a fatherless boy.
His upbringing harsh, Karl (Thornton) had spent his entire adult life in what he calls a "nervous hospital" after killing his mother and her lover in a fit of moral rage at age twelve. Upon his release he moves back to his home town but finds real life much too complicated for his extremely basic mind.
Karl speaks slowly, deeply and methodically like an idling tractor engine. His gentle manner and simple philosophies buoy him in his frustration with the larger world. His friendship with a local boy (Lucas Black) becomes a point of tranquillity in both their lives -- for the boy because of his tumultuous life is made a constant terror by his mother's abusive boyfriend.
The boyfriend is played by country singer Dwight Yoakum in a performance so effective that I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw his name in the credits. A tension between the two men in the boy's life slowly forms in Karl's mind as his biggest dilemma in the outside world.
He decides he must to stop this man from destroying his new friends, this mother and son he has grown to care for. But finds very few options in his modest logic.
Thornton's performance is riveting. There is an unavoidable comparison to Forrest Gump here, but Karl is hapless, not happy-go-lucky. This is "Gump" for the world-weary set.
Thornton's direction is commendable as well. Told simply enough that Karl himself could follow the story, he offers up deep looks into our antagonist's eyes that betray a complex soul, as well as silent tension in scenes that burn with the inevitable wake of Karl's past.
Opening with an interview Karl gives to a frightened freshman journalist from a college newspaper, Thornton's camera does not budge for a full four or five minutes while Karl recounts the murder of his mother. This scene has the flavor of a campfire horror story told by your scariest uncle when you were ten years old. You know nothing will come of it, but it keeps you awake nonetheless.
"Sling Blade" revives that tension again and again as Karl pits his love for his new friends against his sense of right and wrong when he sees a simple remedy for their harsh life. It is a moral dilemma that plants his character in our hearts and requires our rapt attention for the length of this engrossing film.