Film Scouts Reviews

"Sling Blade"

by Karen Jaehne

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"Sling Blade" is about white trash without Hollywood's insufferably patronizing comedy. The actors all look like the leftovers from a Grateful Dead concert, but they're helluva good actors, which makes the movie a masterful debut.

It's about Karl, who may be a retard, but imprisonment has freed Karl to do what nobody else can afford to do. Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl as only the man who wrote this film could do. The writer's moral perspective twists your mind around and challenges your comfy assumptions about killers. It shows us the angle of somebody who's a few sandwiches shy of a picnic--yet it doesn't mean he's wrong. And it doesn't mean he doesn't have to pay.

The script is deceptively spare (like a Richard Ford novel). Having been treated like a dog and made to sleep and live in a shed growing up, Karl experiences the prison of the state mental hospital as a civilizing force. He reads - and believes - the Bible. When he's released, he's under the onus of having murdered his mother. As he embarks on a friendship with young Frankie, who is also subject to abuse, we know what Karl's going to do. You have to watch the tragedy played out, because Karl gets under your skin.

He makes friends with Frankie, whose mama invites Karl to come live in their garage. It gives him a home. It shows him what love is - or could be. His sense of justice is awakened when a cussed jerk named Doyle decides to become the head of the household. Doyle is played by c & w singer Dwight Yoakam with an ornery edge that can only come from somebody unafraid of the legendary losers in country music ballads. (Dwight has a band in the movie, and it's awful, but this in-joke doesn't ruin anything.)

You can argue about what the movie means - justifiable homicide? insanity defense? It seems to me the movie is about the desire to protect the innocent from the cruelty of the world. Maybe there are no innocents. But within the scope of this film, both Frankie and Karl are grappling with grown-ups, trying to understand what's happening or happened to them. Young Frankie's ten-year-old clarity illuminates Karl's flat-footed acceptance of the world that's done nothing but hurt him. Together they remind us that innocence is the ability to suffer pain without understanding why.

"Karl" is as memorable as Travis Bickle or Jon Voigt's midnight cowboy. We know the Arkansas backwater town from southern literature, but the character is startlingly original and rivetting. He does something with his voice at the end of a sentence to signal that he means what he says. It's almost an animal noise, a double hum or grunt that Frankie describes to his mom as the sound of a race car. It's the sound of a voice deep inside trying to get out. But there's also a weird satisfaction in being trapped. It's the movie in a nutshell. - Karen Jaehne

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