Sling Blade

on November 29, 1996 by Ed Scheid
   One of the audience favorites at Telluride, "Sling Blade" is a very impressive directorial debut by Billy Bob Thornton, who also wrote the screenplay and portrays the lead. (Thorton previously co-wrote "A Family Thing" and "One False Move," co-starring in the latter.) In this drama, Karl (Thornton) is a mildly retarded man who's being released from an asylum for the criminally insane. When he was a boy 25 years ago, he'd killed his mother and her lover with a sling blade. Karl gets a job as a mechanic in his small Southern hometown and begins to fit into a regular routine. He is so gentle that no one is threatened by his past. He befriends Frank (Lucas Black), an unhappy boy. Seeing how close Karl has become with her son, Frank's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites Karl to stay with them. But Linda's abusive boyfriend Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam) feels his influence in the household threatened.
   The skillful script gradually reveals the unexpected complexity of the characters. An unhurried pace reflects the quiet life of the town, where only sudden bursts of anger from Doyle shatter the calm. An increasingly dark mood is enhanced through the use of shadows and muted colors. What make the film intriguing are how Karl reacts to his life away from the asylum and how all the characters react to the inevitable conclusion.
   Thornton's is a memorable performance. With his jaw extended and a minimum of gesture and word, Thornton gives Karl a great sensitivity and kindess; Karl becomes surprisingly perceptive in understanding the relationships of the people around him. The entire cast gives strong performances, including Yoakam and John Ritter (as Linda's gay friend) in change-of-pace roles, and Robert Duvall as Karl's fanatically religious father and J.T. Walsh as an inmate who can't stop talking about the details of the murder he committed. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter and Lucas Black. Directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton. Produced by Brandon Rosser and David L. Bushell. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior. Running time: 140 min. Screened at the Telluride fest. Opens 11/22 NY/LA
Tags: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Billy Bob Thornton. Produced by Brandon Rosser and David L. Bushell. A Miramax release. Drama

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