A slowly accruing character study of several Southern misfits that possesses the remorseless inevitability of a Greek tragedy, “Sling Blade” makes a forceful but uneven cut. Marked by some powerful scenes, fine performances and colorful dialogue, this talented directorial debut by actor-writer Billy Bob Thornton has its effectiveness diluted by serious overlength and a rather monotonous, unmodulated tone. Notable in many ways, this Miramax pickup could have been, and perhaps still could be, even better than it is. Bolstered by strong reviews , potent but dawdling drama could make a stir on the specialized circuit.
Project had its origins in a short, “Some Call It a Sling Blade,” directed by George Hickenlooper, that attracted favorable notice a couple of years back. It has basically been reshot to make up the opening reel of the feature, which takes off from there. Essentially consisting of two long scenes, kickoff remains one of the most powerful stretches in the picture, as a patient in a mental hospital (a terrific J.T. Walsh) tells a few sex-obsessed stories to another patient. The latter, Karl Childers (Thornton), is due to be released that day, but before he leaves he consents to speak to a student journalist.
The interview spurs a long, mesmerizing monologue in which the simple-minded Karl, perhaps 40, tells in his sandpaper voice of his sorry childhood and how, when he was about 12, he saw a neighbor man he hated getting naked with Karl’s mother and doing something Karl thought was bad. Plainly and without remorse, he states that he took a sling blade and hacked up the neighbor and, upon realizing that his mother hadn’t been minding what the man was doing, killed her too.
Deemed cured and unlikely to kill again, Karl is let go into a world he has never inhabited as an adult. After wandering around, he heads back to the hospital and asks to be readmitted. But this isn’t allowed, so the sympathetic administrator sets Karl up with a menial job fixing engines at a shop in his small Southern hometown.
Bonding with an unhappy young boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), the slouching, mild-mannered Karl soon takes up residence with Frank and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canderday). Here he comes into contact with another outcast. Linda’s attentive gay workmate, Vaughan (John Ritter), as well as Linda’s boyfriend, Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam), an abusive, alcoholic good ol’boy with no use for gays, retards or uppity kids.
Slowly, the gears of Thornton’s script start to turn toward the inexorable climax. Karl gradually gains a bit of confidence and insight into the nuances of human relationships, Frank relies upon Karl more and more as an estimable male figure in his bereft life, and Doyle threatens everyone around him to such an extent that Karl reckons he must take matters into his own hands.
Acclaimed for his writing on Carl Franklin’s crime drama “One False Move,” Thornton here impressively delineates the details of his troubled characters’ lives and the minutiae of small-town existence. His dialogue, and particularly the numerous monologues, are flavorsome, and he daringly fleshes out many scenes well beyond their dramatic necessity to fill in extra colors and nuances of character.
Thornton also knows how to direct to achieve strong impact, but his presentation frequently achieves less than its full potential due to the inexpressive visuals and over-reliance upon unvaried master shots. Numerous key scenes are covered solely by wide group shots, often from an uninteresting, slightly overhead angle designed just to get everything in.
There is periodic grace in the visual storytelling, but not nearly enough stylistic detail. There is also simply too much. One can tell without much trouble where the story is headed, and some of the digressions, notably one involving a baby brother of Karl’s and a related visit to his long-lost father, seem irrelevant. Latter scene feels especially pointless, even though it involves a cameo by Robert Duvall; the great actor simply has nothing to do.
Toward the end, some of Thornton’s dialogue, spare and oblique at its best, tends to hit emotional issues too squarely on the head. There will be viewers who find the story a bit creepy, others who will object to the justifiable-homicide theme, and some who will reject the tragic determinism of the tale.
But there can be nothing but praise for Thornton’s unusual, highly controlled performance as the stunted killer who comes to choose his own morally questionable way of bettering the lives of some essentially good but endangered people.
Yoakam is excellent as the small-time bully who, unlike Karl, can’t grow beyond his own limitations. Ritter, in his carrot-top haircut and nerdy horn-rimmed glasses, was certainly an unlikely choice as an open, if fearful, gay in a fishbowl of a town, and some might feel that his perf reps something of a stunt. But his turn is also continually lively and interesting to watch, resulting in a sympathetic characterization. Black is decent, if undimensional, as the boy, and other supporting thesps deliver tangy, authentic work.
Production values are decent for this pic, shot in Benton, Ark.