Miramax // 1996 // 135 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // March 1st, 2000
A simple man, a difficult choice.
Billy Bob Thornton is an interesting person in the film industry today. A fellow southerner who, like me, probably got ex-communicated for excessive IQ and social tolerance, he's done some great work both as an actor and as a writer/director. I first became aware of his work when I saw the original short film, titled "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade," on which this feature film was based.
The original short, obviously done on a shoestring budget, was only about 30 minutes long or so and covered what amounts to the setup of the feature film. But it was still quite a gripping piece, and created the main character and the framework for the feature film to come. I was very impressed with it, as were some other folks with much more bucks and influence than moi (though of course this is almost a statistical certainty since almost everyone has much more bucks and influence than moi.)
Based on that attention garnered by the short film, Thornton went on to write the screenplay for and direct the feature film, as well as to play the main character. This film then went on to earn an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and a nomination for Thornton for Best Actor; not a bad kick start for one's career. Since then, Thornton has appeared in material as varied as The Apostle, A Simple Plan, and Armageddon.
After a short opening sequence, the film begins with an interview by two local student reporters. They've come to the local mental hospital to interview the soon to be released Karl Childers, played by Billy Bob Thornton (Primary Colors, The Apostle, Floundering). Childers has been incarcerated for almost all his life, for the brutal double slaying of his mother and her lover when he was a young man. The event has become part of the local folklore, and the title of the film is based on the name of the murder weapon, a sling blade, which is a hand held scythe-like implement used to cut down weeds.
During the interview we meet Karl, and hear him relay his life story, and it's quit horrific. Though we never meet Karl's mother and only briefly meet his father, played by Robert Duvall (Deep Impact, The Apostle, The Godfather), we learn that they too were probably severely dysfunctional. They raised Karl like an animal, in a dirt floor shed behind the house, and were little better than animals themselves. Given this background, we easily understand how Karl ended up as he did, and see that he is in fact a very sympathetic character.
During his years in prison, Karl has raised himself up a bit, learning to read and getting some perspective on how he has come to be where he is. But his inherent mental limitations, multiplied by never having lived a normal life on his own, present many challenges and naturally there are concerns that these pressures might in some way cause him to kill again. This is the main thrust of the interview, which sets up the premise of the story.
Upon his release, we learn that Karl's only possessions are a small set of books, which he carries bound up in a belt. He spends his first day just wandering around, with nowhere to go. Eventually he ends up back at the mental hospital, since it's the only place he knows. But he cannot stay there any longer. The superintendent, who has known Karl all of his live, takes him to his own home to stay the night. And the next day, takes him into town to get a job at a local "fix it up" shop, since Karl is a whiz with small engines. Karl takes the job and lives in the back of the shop.
Soon, Karl meets Frank Wheatley, played by Lucas Black (The X-Files, American Gothic, Ghosts of Mississippi), a young boy in the town, and they hit it off immediately. Frank Takes Karl to meet his mother Linda Wheatly, played by Natalie Canerday (Biloxi Blues, One False Move, October Sky), and her friend Vaughan Cunningham, played by John Ritter (Shadow of Doubt, Skin Deep, Letting Go). Linda's husband died years ago, and she is struggling to raise Frank alone. Vaughan is a gay man, who is basically stuck in this very conservative rural town because his lover won't leave.
Frank convinces his mother to let Karl move into the garage, so Karl moves from the shop to the Wheatley garage and things seem to be going well. He has a job and is supporting himself. He's got new friends and family, where he never had any before. But, since this is a movie, all is not well. Linda, struggling to find a man to help her raise her boy, and having limited prospects, has hooked up with Doyle Hargraves, played by Dwight Yoakam (The Minus Man, The Newton Boys, Painted Hero). Doyle, though not an evil man, is alcoholic, vengeful, prone to violent emotional outbursts, and jealous of Frank's hold on his mother's affections.
The rest of the film follows the events of Doyle moving more into the family and the conflict this creates. As Doyle becomes more violent and possessive, Karl feels he must take their safety into his own hands, leading to the tragic but strangely calm conclusion.
In Karl Childers, Billy Bob Thornton has created one of the most memorable characters ever. The expressions, mannerisms, ticks, and vocabulary of Karl are completely believable. But it's Karl's very unique voice that makes him so different. From what I've heard of Thornton's comments about the film, much of it derived originally from the voice itself. He stated that once he had that voice, the story behind it fell into place.
Thornton plays Karl with a nice mixture of childlike innocence, mixed with odd bits of insight and adult protectiveness of Frank and Linda. On the one hand, Karl's life has been so tough that the day to day hardships that are part of being poor and uneducated are nothing to him. On the other hand, he is so unexposed to the complex social and emotional fabric of the real world, that he is completely helpless.
Most of the other actors Thornton cast are clearly native southerners as best I can tell, having been one myself. There aren't any fake accents or fake southernisms anywhere to be seen. Young Frank in particular has a classic southern accent and pronunciation. Also, the lugubrious nature of rural southern life is very convincingly portrayed. The entire film is steeped in a sort of "Dixie Zen" atmosphere of a very small and slow lifestyle.
Though the film is a serious drama, and not for the kids, it also has some very cutely funny moments, particularly when Vaughan is involved. Vaughan and Karl have a hilarious conversation in the local burger joint, where Vaughan spills his guts about his life as a gay man in a small rural town to Karl, who has not a clue what he's talking about.
The 1.85:1 video is pretty good for a non-anamorphic. Viewed via the pseudo anamorphic upconversion of the Faroudja, it looked slightly soft but not distracting. The film contains a variety of material, from bright outdoor shots to quite dark nighttime interiors.
The Dolby 2.0 sound track is sufficient for this type of film, which is very low key and with little action. The voices are easily understandable. The surround action is pretty subtle when present at all.
As with too many of the films I review, there are squat for extras. On this disc, there is an "other titles" menu selection that shows the covers of a few other discs and that's it. Though we can be a bit forgiving I guess due to the fact that this disc was made a good while back, it's painful when these most personal of directorial projects don't have a director's commentary.
As previously mentioned, the video is non-anamorphic and the audio is not 5.1. Though the latter can be somewhat overlooked due to the nature of the film, no letterboxing goes unpunished. Though the video was not without merit, it could have been much better.
Some of the actors in this film are a wee bit weaker than average, since they aren't full time actors or are very early in their careers. I personally don't think it detracts from the film, but I feel compelled to mention it, in case this is your pet film peeve.
If you aren't a fan of quiet and introspective films, then this one will probably leave you in a coma. As mentioned, it is a kind of Southern Zen film, very quiet, very deliberately paced, like the lifestyles it portrays.
Billy Bob Thornton's debut into the writing and directorial big time is an excellent effort. He may never again be able to make this personal and intimate a film, since he'll be busy with a string of broken marriages to young starlets, drug rehab, and doing Armageddon Part IV probably. It's a beautifully told and filmed story of a simple but tragic life, strangely life affirming and depressing at the same time. If this is your general type of flick, you'll almost certainly enjoy it.
Acquitted despite its mental limitations.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R