Miramax // 1996 // 135 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 4th, 2009
I like them French fried potaters.
Before Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn't There) was famous for being married to and then divorced from Angelina Jolie, he was famous for having written, directed, and starred in a compelling little independent drama called Sling Blade. Miramax has released the film a couple times on DVD. Now here it is on glorious high definition Blu-ray. Mmmm-hmmm.
Karl Childers (Thornton) has been in a nervous hospital since, as a child, he murdered his mother and her lover. Now middle-aged, he's released from the institution and returns to the small Southern town where he spent his childhood. Though mentally disabled and ill-equipped to live outside of confinement, he finds a job repairing lawn mowers. Karl strikes up a friendship with a young boy named Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift), and is invited by Frank's mother (Natalie Canerday, October Sky) to live in their garage. Frank's rocky relationship with his mother's abusive alcoholic boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam, Crank) reminds Karl of the deprivation and abuse he suffered during his own childhood. Pushed to the breaking point, he decides to take action to protect the boy's life and childhood innocence.
Lost in the typhoon of piss-poor Karl Childers imitations initiated by Sling Blade's sleeper success at the box office in 1996 is the quiet, gentle beauty that characterizes the film. The movie is set among the vivid green trees of the fecund rural South. Shots of Karl crossing an overgrown bridge in silhouette, backlit by an orange setting sun that scatters the shots with lens flares, are absolutely gorgeous. The working class bungalows in Karl's hometown are filled with lived-in detail. Thornton presents it all without an ounce of kitsch or condescension. Sling Blade has the same mix of pristine natural beauty and persistent underlying menace that makes John Boorman's Deliverance an edge-of-your-seat drama. Sling Blade's plot is more conventional than Boorman's film. It's even downright predictable. But that hardly matters as the characters are so engaging, the world of the film so immersive.
From top to bottom, the movie's cast is amazing. Child actor Lucas Black delivers a strong performance in a role that is perhaps slightly too heavy on dialogue. Dwight Yoakam is perfect as Doyle, delicately giving us the sense that the man's drunken rages are rooted in his own weaknesses and fears, making him just the sort of man who, despite his bluster, would be no match for Childers. The late John Ritter has a memorable turn as Frank's mother's homosexual friend, Vaughan Cunningham. Ritter captures the character's unease at being gay in a small town in the rural South without ever straying into broad stereotype. It's a subtle and precise piece of acting that should be viewed by anyone who thinks Ritter's talents didn't extend beyond the slapstick antics of Three's Company.
Despite the other fine performances, Sling Blade was destined to live or die on Thornton's acting. From his hiked up pants, to his pronounced underbite, to his pitched-forward head, to his gruff voice and deep Southern accent, Thornton went all-in with his approach to Karl Childers. The performance is so over the top, it could easily have tanked the entire show. But somehow it works. Despite his almost cartoonish personal ticks, we experience Karl Childers as a real human being because Thornton's performance is unflinchingly consistent, and the movie is a Southern-fried horror flick rooted in themes of redemption and personal sacrifice. Childers spends so much time talking about the Bible, Hades, and the innocence of children, and Doyle is such an unmitigated scumbag, that there's never any doubt where the story is headed: Karl must sacrifice his freedom (and, as far as he's concerned, his eternal soul) in order to save Frank. But Thornton's performance is so fine and the sense of dread so palpable throughout the movie that the emotional journey is far more important than the narrative destination. Whenever I watch Sling Blade, I know that I'm being manipulated, that beneath the movie's pervasive threat of violence is a sappy Hollywood-style lightweight confection. I just can't find it within myself to care. The movie just works.
Miramax serves up the 135-minute theatrical cut of Sling Blade in a solid 1080p AVC transfer. Thornton and cinematographer Barry Markowitz (The Apostle) shot the movie on a paltry $1 million budget. Most of its production value is derived from the lush, green Southern setting. Detail on the transfer is decent -- not spectacular, but impressive given the movie's age and small budget. Color, depth, and grain structure are far superior to previous DVD releases. A DTS-HD lossless audio track is punchy and perfectly clear. Use of the rear soundstage is limited, but the mix captures every nuance of the original audio track.
The disc is loaded with extras. Unfortunately, they're the same batch of supplements from the Collector's Series DVD released back in 2005. There are no HD exclusives. First up, Thornton delivers an interesting if low-key audio commentary for the film. "On the Set" is a trio of featurettes -- "Billy Bob at Work" (4:39), "Doyle's Band: The Johnsons" (1:46), and "Doyle Gets Pummeled" (1:53) -- that provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the movie's production.
There are two video features about Billy Bob Thornton. Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood (66:51) is a documentary about the writer-director-actor's life, early career, and the making of Sling Blade. An episode of Bravo Profiles (43:24) is more focused on the post-Sling Blade movie star phase of his career.
Next up is a trio of video discussions about the film: "A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and Producer David Bushell" (75:25), "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall" (8:31), and "A Conversation with Robert Duvall" (7:35). The first of the featurettes is a loose and lively conversation about the film. The second and third segments are video interviews slightly marred by the fact that it's difficult to hear the questions being asked.
"The Return of Karl" (3:40) is footage of Thornton fooling around on the set in character. "Doyle's Dead" (4:23) is a deleted post-credits sequence. The scene is introduced by Thornton, who also explains why he opted not to include it in the final movie.
All of the video features are presented in standard definition.
There's no doubt that Sling Blade looks and sounds better on Blu-ray than it does on DVD, but given the limitations of the low-budget source materials and the total absence of any HD exclusives whatsoever, there's not a lot of point picking this up if you already own the Collector's Series DVD.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scene