Unlike most critics, I’ve been largely unimpressed with Billy Bob Thornton’s work in the past. From One False Move to A Family Thing, I’ve always found his writing to lack depth and miss a true focus.
But then there’s Sling Blade, and with Thornton in complete control as the writer, director, and star of the show, I do believe he’s created a real gem.
Sling Blade has its origins in Thornton’s little-seen (and kind of dull) short film, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. The short, a 10-minute black and white affair, is actually incorporated – nearly verbatim – into the feature. It presents to us the character of Karl, a mentally deliberate man who, as a boy, killed his mother and her lover some 25 years ago. After a long spell in the mental hospital, Karl is "well" and is being released into the world.
That’s where the short film ends, and that’s where my plot description ends as well, because from there on out, Sling Blade is a true original. The film is an American Gothic tale, following Karl’s reluctant return to modern rural Bible Belt society, complete with small-town closet homosexuals (John Ritter, surprisingly good here), bigoted rednecks (Dwight Yoakam), and the Frostee Cream. Unable to deal with the cacophony of new things, Karl just tunes them out, living in the garage of his new little friend (Lucas Black) and subsisting on french fries and mustard, working as a small engine repairman.
But while Karl is simple, he shows us the complexities of life through less experienced eyes, and yet the film never wanders into the campiness of i. Inside is to be found a tale of true friendship, the meaning of love, an amazing morality fable, and some beautiful imagery. All of it to be found in the simplest of places. It feels slow at times, but the pacing actually enhances the experience of being pulled in to the Deep South.
I loved your movie, but don’t get cocky, Billy Bob; I want to see another great one. After all, I know Molly Ringwald was in your short film…
I’m rubbin’ mustard on my belly… mm-hmm.
Review by Christopher Null © 1999 filmcritic.com