Billy Bob Thornton got himself a well deserved Oscar for the film Sling Blade. If you’ve ever seen the film, or anything else by the man, there’s no surprise that he took home one of the coveted statues. What is a bit surprising is that he took the Oscar home for the screenplay for Sling Blade and not for the masterful performance. Now don’t get me wrong. The screenplay is a brilliant one. He certainly deserved that award, but there hasn’t been a performance as riveting as his portrayal of Karl Childers in a decade or more. It was this performance that made Thornton the household name he became. It’s doubtful many of the other opportunities he did get would have come his way without such a landmark role. The character has become an icon in American pop culture and is imitated frequently in films, television shows, and skits. There have been plenty of imitations, but there’s only one Sling Blade.
It’s almost hard to imagine that this baby is almost singlehandedly the product of Billy Bob Thornton. He wrote the story, directed the film, and played the lead character. It just doesn’t happen this way very often. You’ve seen enough of my reviews here to know what I tend to think of these, often egotistical, one man shows. Most of the time they are self serving crap that passes for high art or entertainment. This is certainly one of those exceptions that, as they say, proves the rule. Of course I never did understand that phrase all that much. Still, it fits about as perfectly as you please here. Every aspect of this film is near perfect. The story is a compelling one to be sure, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as good without such sweet direction and acting. The award might have been deserved; probably was, as Karl would say. But it was the other two elements that really made this film.
Karl Childers (Thornton) has spent the last 20 years in a mental institution. He had caught his mother and a lover in bed. He misinterpreted her cries and killed her lover. When he realized the truth behind the matter he killed his mother, as well, wielding the titular sling blade. The mentally challenged young man was placed in the institution and is now considered cured. He has no family, except a father who naturally disowns him, and some vague recollections from his old home town. When he returns home he befriends a young boy, Frank (Black). The boy appears a bit lonely and in need of a friend. His mother works, so he doesn’t see her often. She has hooked up with a no good scoundrel, Doyle (Yoakam) who gets drunk and beats her while constantly berating the young boy. Frank’s mom, Linda (Canerday) offers Karl their garage to live in because he has nowhere to go and she hopes he will be a good companion for Frank. Linda works at the local store, owned by the kindhearted and very gay Vaughan (Ritter), who loves the family and fears the worst from Doyle. As the situation at home deteriorates for Frank and his mom, Karl is finding it hard to deal with the emotions that he’s beginning to have. Will his old rage resurface to protect the boy?
Thornton has an eye for the southern epic, and this film is certainly evidence of that. The locations and the people that populate them are straight out of some classic southern era that now only exists in remote areas or Andy Griffith reruns. He manages to bring the best out of even his most peripheral characters. Each of them appears right at home and serves a very specific function in this great mosaic. From the opening monologue by J.T. Walsh after he drags that chair noisily across the room to sit a spell with Karl, to the members of the front porch band, each is a color that necessarily comes together to form a picture from out of Thornton’s mind.
The real star here is Thornton as Karl. He completely transforms himself into the odd and rather quirky character. All evidence of Billy Bob Thornton disappears, and Karl takes over his body. From the by now familiar manner of speech to that painted on grin that Karl never loses, this is one of those all time best characters in American cinema. As recognizable as The Godfather or Dirty Harry, Karl reminds us a bit of Lon Chaney, Jr’s portrayal of Lenny in Of Mice And Men. We have a character that is capable of incredible violence, a monster some might say. Yet, inside is a heart and gentleness that stands in complete opposition to these inner physical intimidations. But somewhere in between there is a serious short circuit, and Thornton allows us a unique look at the inner workings of such a mind. John Ritter puts in an Oscar worthy performance as well as the concerned Vaughan. It was just a glimpse behind the mask of a man known mostly for his comedic talent. Unfortunately he never did get the chance to follow up this role with other dramatic performances as powerful as this one. Dwight Yoakam delivers a character that shows us that you don’t have to be crazy to be so scary. He’s the real demon here, and he gives us a layered character that shares so many nuances and realistic attributes that we almost want Karl to kill him. Finally, you can’t say enough about Lucas Black as Frank. He develops a genuine bond with Thornton as Karl. It’s so effective that we really want to see this friendship blossom and wish by the end that things could have been different for both of them. Seldom does a film bring a person like me so powerfully into a moving story. With Sling Blade, there just isn’t any resistance. This is as close to perfect filmmaking as they come.
Sling Blade is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/Mpeg-4 codec. This is a film that is not supposed to be very visually stunning. It’s an ultra-realistic look at the deep south. There’s a lot of dust, and the palette of colors is noticeably subdued. Thornton has expressed a deep dislike for the color red, and you won’t likely find it anywhere in this presentation. It’s an appropriately depressing image. That doesn’t mean this high definition release is wasted on the film. It’s also a film just loaded with detail and an incredible amount of nuance in the set decorations. This is about as good a look at these clever filmmaking decisions as you’re likely to get. There’s a lot of grain and “noise” in many of the darker scenes, so the black levels aren’t what I’d call really outstanding. You have to take these “defects” more as stylish choices that help make this film as real as it appears.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty solid for what it needs to do. There’s pretty much dialog and some southern flavor background music. It all works just fine. Believe me when I tell you that you won’t be paying attention to how your sound system works while watching this film. It just plain doesn’t matter any more than what you get here.
There is an Audio Commentary by Billy Bob Thornton. He’s just as informal and kicked back as you might expect. It’s a little slow at times, but he offers some real impressive insight into the film. I highly recommend you take the time to make that second film pass to hear this stuff.
All of the extras are in SD.
Mr. Thornton Goes To Hollywood: (1:06:51) You can watch this massive documentary in either 14 parts or as a play all feature. It’s really a pretty complete bio on Thornton. There’s plenty of interview clips from his friends and even relatives. Eventually it works itself toward Sling Blade and offers some behind the scenes stuff.
Bravo Profiles – Billy Bob Thornton: (43:24) Pretty much a condensed version of the previous feature.
A Roundtable Discussion: (1:15:25) Thornton joins with Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and David Bushell for an intimate gathering where the group generally shoot the breeze and share some memories.
A Conversation With Billy Bob Thornton And Robert Duvall: (8:31) The two actors are in a recording studio and share some memories of each other. Duvall pretty much did the short part as a favor to his buddy.
A Conversation With Robert Duvall: (7:35) Just more of the same interview, but this time with Duvall solo.
A Conversation With Billy Bob Thornton And Composer Daniel Lanios: (22:59) Lanios plays some music from the film live. Then the two talk about the film and the musical choices. Apparently there was another composer on the film that didn’t work out very well.
The Return Of Karl: (3:40) A little behind the scenes skit with Thornton as Karl.
On Set: Four segments of the film with split screen showing the finished film and the behind the scenes footage.
Doyle’s Dead: (4:23) A proposed end credits scene where band members play and talk.
It was years after its release that I first saw Sling Blade. Of course, like everybody else, I had heard a lot about it. I can’t remember when it was I finally saw it for the first time, but the film itself was immediately burned into my memory. Hey, I wonder if that constitutes unauthorized reproduction. If it does, please don’t call the feds. Anyway, it’s one of those films I promise you’ll never forget. This Blu-ray offers you the chance to add it to your high definition collection, and it’s an offer you can’t, or at least shouldn’t refuse. It’s classic Americana like it’s seldom made today. I’ve still never seen Thornton’s original short film that predated this one. I know he’s been unhappy with director George Hickenlooper. It was included in an earlier DVD release but is missing here. I can’t imagine it holding a candle to this version of Kaiser Blade, “Some folks call it a sling blade”.