Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" is a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative. It marks the feature directorial and solo writing debuts for Thornton, who also stars.
That it is so stunningly original and powerful will come as no surprise to anyone who saw 1992's "One False Move," in which Thornton played a congenial small-town sheriff and which he wrote with Tom Epperson for director Carl Franklin. The tension, the sense of surprise, the dark power of the past and the affection for the locale and its people that characterized the earlier film are all in full force in "Sling Blade."
We meet Karl Childers (Thornton) just as he is to be released from a state mental institution somewhere in the South. ("Sling Blade" was filmed in Benton, Ark., in Thornton's native state.) Karl, who is mildly retarded, has been incarcerated for 25 years after having slain, at the age of 12, his mother and her lover when he caught them in the act. The head of the institution (James Hampton) sees to it that Karl, a whiz with small engines, gets a job and shelter in his nearby hometown at a machine shop.
Hunched over and speaking in a monotone growl with lots of "uh huhs," Karl is met with kindness. He strikes up a friendship with a fatherless boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), whose widowed mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites him to move into her garage. But as Karl becomes part of the Wheatley family, the situation becomes increasingly tense, thanks to Linda's lover Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Sober, Doyle is merely a petty tyrant who likes to make life miserable for Frank; drunk, he is downright dangerous, nasty and violent. Right from the start Vaughan (John Ritter, all but unrecognizable), Linda's devoted gay boss at the local dry-goods store, warns Karl that Doyle is a monster.
"Sling Blade" is a strong, devastating film that could have been even stronger had more screen time been devoted to Linda and Doyle and less to Karl and Frank, whose friendship is more readily credible and established.
We're made to understand that Linda is lonely, that available men are clearly in short supply in her town and that Doyle has his seductive, remorseful side and that she can feel his torment. (Like Karl, Doyle has apparently had a horrific childhood.) But Doyle, thanks to Yoakam's terrifying portrayal, is so scary so much of the time that you have a hard time understanding how Linda can stand to have him in her life.
We just don't get to know Linda well enough to understand how a good-hearted woman, who can have Vaughan as her best friend and take in Karl, can put up with Doyle, a snarly, physically abusive, world-class homophobe, bigot and tormentor of her son. We can only assume she is in ultimately profound denial over Doyle, despite her actions and remarks to the contrary.
It says something for Thornton's forcefulness as a filmmaker and the skill of his cast that "Sling Blade," so very well-photographed by Barry Markowitz, can sustain such puzzlement over Linda. "Sling Blade" catches you up so firmly in its world that you find yourself accepting whatever Thornton presents right up to its deeply ironic finish.
Thornton is totally persuasive as Karl, a simple wise man in the classic screen tradition, and so is country music legend Yoakam, whose acting career has been developing over the past several years. (As Doyle he even has to come across as a terrible musician.)
Ritter, with whom Thornton appeared regularly on the "Hearts Afire" TV series, expresses not only his devotion to the Wheatleys but also the anguish at being gay in a small town.
Black, Canerday, Hampton, Robert Duvall as Karl's father and J.T. Walsh as a mental patient also impress. Contributing strongly to making "Sling Blade" a captivating experience is Daniel Lanois' exceptional score--alternately ominous, folksy and passionate, which could also serve as a description of this alternately tender and frightening film.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior. Times guidelines: Those descriptions plus much verbal abuse and intimidation make this film especially unsuitable for children.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Billy Bob Thornton: Karl Childers
Dwight Yoakam: Doyle Hargraves
Lucas Black: Frank Wheatley
Natalie Canerday: Linda Wheatley
John Ritter: Vaughan Cunningham
A Miramax presentation. Writer-director Billy Bob Thornton. Producers Brandon Rosser, David. L. Bushell. Executive producer Larry Meistrich. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz. Editor Hughes Winborne. Costumes Douglas Hall. Music Daniel Lanois. Production designer Clark Hunter. Set decorator Traci Kirshbaum. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8400 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500.