The Southern Gothic Sling Blade doesn't have a complex plot; in fact, its storyline could fairly be described as cliched. But Oscar-winning writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton brings three key ingredients to the table: distinctive, rich, authentic Southern locations, patient and painterly atmosphere, and a precise and fresh character to study. Sling Blade effectively asks, "What if Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird was dangerous, his protective instinct leading to murderous rages?" He might be Karl Childers, a thirty-seven-year-old mentally challenged man who has, since age twelve, lived in the state psychiatric hospital (following the double murder of his mother and a one-night stand). Karl's father wants nothing to do with him; not coincidentally, Pa is played by Robert Duvall, Thornton's friend and the screen's Boo Radley.
Thrust back into a world he's unequipped to deal with, Childers orders some "french fried potaters" from a take-out stand (it's run by Jim Jarmusch, appearing as an indie patron saint signalling that Sling Blade is a quintessential American indie of the boomtime '90s). In short order, Karl has a chance meeting with a young boy named Frankie Wheatley (Lucas Black), who instantly offers the older man friendship. Frankie's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) suffers through an abusive relationship with natural-born bully Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), and it quickly becomes apparent that Frankie sees in Karl a gentle-giant alternative to the nasty father figure he's got (also a peer of sorts, since Karl is largely arrested in his own state of boyhood). Certainly, Karl is a curiosity, to Linda, her best friend Vaughan (John Ritter), and Frankie, who says, "I like the way he talks. It sounds like a racecar motor idling."
Derived from a 1994 short film written by Thornton and directed by George Hickenlooper, Sling Blade is best remembered for the idiosyncratic character quirks crafted by Thornton for Karl, with his hunched back, jutted jaw, limited vocabulary ("Alright, then," "I reckon...") and tic of chasing his comments with a self-affirming "Mm-hm." Thornton disappears into the role with prime actorly commitment, and he knows good acting when he sees it, getting equally great work from veterans like J.T. Walsh (in a disturbing pair of scenes as a mental patient) and Ritter (who's both funny and touching as a gay man who's "out" whether he likes it or not) and from relatively inexperienced actors like old friend Rick Dial (as a garage proprietor) and Yoakam, who modulates Doyle into a wholly believable asshole seemingly formed out of a lifetime of disapointment.
Barry Markowitz's photography and Daniel Lanois' score help to set the mood for this tale of damaged human goods, the good or bad--but invariably hapless--people around them, and sacrifice in the name of love. It's the little things that make Sling Blade touching: the tender relationship between Karl and Frankie, the funny-sad artistry of the doomed porch band made up of Doyle's "friends," the bumbling good intentions of Vaughan and the doctor (James Hampton) who learns he can't so easily abdicate his responsibility to Karl. Ultimately, what may be most fascinating about Sling Blade is its acquiescence to the viewer's morality. Though Thornton subtly suggests Karl may be a sort of Christ figure, the man has a Bible, but no Bible study. In my book, that kind of divorce from modern reason is dangerous, though others embrace Karl's choices as morally just. I guess it's like the film's signature line: "Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade."
Sling Blade's Blu-ray debut comes in its Theatrical Cut, not the Director's Cut released to DVD in 2005. The twelve-minute difference doesn't appear in the form of "Deleted Scenes," either, suggesting that Miramax is planning a double-dip in future. Despite that disappointment, all other previously issued bonus features are on hand, and the transfer is excellent, so the upgrade may be worthwhile for fans. The transfer is one of those that makes the film look better than one might think possible. Retaining its film-like look with gentle grain, this picture gets high marks all around: in its subtle color rendering, vastly improved detail, and general solidity. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doesn't yield quite so dramatic results, but it certainly brings clarity to the original audio for this quiet drama.
The extras kick off with an audio commentary by writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton sourced from a bygone Criterion laserdisc. This isn't essential listening, given the documentaries that follow, but it's a useful historical record, and will please Thornton enthusiasts.
The equivalent of a biography one can't put down, "Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood" (1:06:51, SD) is a fantastic profile of Thornton that covers his coming of age and long road to being the sought0after talent he is today. Thornton is interviewed extensively, as are many of his family, friends and colleagues, including Chopper Chicks in Zombietown director Dan Hoskins, Harry Thomason (executive producer of the CBS sitcom Hearts Afire) and Hearts Afire and Sling Blade star Ritter. The doc also gives some behind-the-scenes info on Sling Blade.
From 2000, "Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton" (43:24, SD) covers much of the same ground, with additional commentators Matt Damon (Thornton's All The Pretty Horses) and then-wife Angelina Jolie.
"A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and Producer David Bushell" (1:15:25, SD) is self-explanatory. The conversation largely runs to music and influences, but also includes Thornton's impression of Robert Duvall.
Speaking of Duvall, he's the focus of two interviews: "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall" (8:31, SD) and "A Conversation with Robert Duvall" (7:35, SD). Duvall is always fascinating, and it's sweet to see him reminiscing with Thornton.
Also here: "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois" (22:59, SD), the larky "The Return of Karl" (3:40, SD) with Thornton back in character years later, and three On The Set featurettes: "Billy Bob at Work" (4:39, SD), "Doyle's Band: The Johnsons" (1:46, SD), and "Doyle Gets Pummeled" (1:53, SD). Last up is an interesting but wisely discarded epilogue to the film (4:23, SD).
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