Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

SLING BLADE (1996) *** 1/4.

Written & directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Photography, Barry Markowitz. Editing, Hughes Winborne. Production design, Clark Hunter. Music, Daniel Lanois. Produced by Brandon Rosser & David L. Bushell. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, et al. A Miramax release. 135 minutes. Rated R (language). At the Art.
With a name like Billy Bob as writer, director and star of a movie, you may expect a bubba picture about good ol' boys. Instead you get something decidedly anti-drive-in, serious, somber, excellent in concept, direction and the protagonist's performance. All this was shot for peanuts.

With a title like "Sling Blade," you may expect theater of blood which could keep many away from the movie-house. Violence, however, is either recounted in sedate terms or takes place off-screen. Even so, the suggestive title was a miscalculation.

Thornton, from Malvern, Arkansas, has had supporting roles in several films. With his childhood friend Tom Epperson he also scripted the underrated "A Family Thing" and Carl Franklin's superior and quite bloody "One False Move" in which he has a major part.

"Sling Blade," set and made in Arkansas, is Thornton's debut as director as well as star. He plays Karl Childers, who, after a 25-year stay at the Arkansas Hospital for the criminally insane, is released. The opening -- a two-part introduction admirable in its simplicity --sets the mood.

First we meet Karl, sitting impassively silent and staring into the distance, as a fellow inmate (J.T.Walsh) babbles on about his sexual obsessions. Then Karl, the only thing lit in a darkened room (it's like a parody of a police interrogation) relates for a journalist how, at age 12 he was the mistreated child of a fundamentalist couple. One day, thinking that his mother was being raped, he killed a man with a sling blade, a sort of scythe; then realizing that the act was consensual, he dispatched the woman.

Now asked if he thinks he can kill again, Karl answers in a masterful set of triple negatives: "I don't reckon I have no reason to kill nobody." Leaving the hospital with a bundle of books (all he owns -- he had spent years re-reading the Bible), he returns to his hometown, a wide spot on the road.

Karl is not all there mentally, but certainly does not deserve to be called jeeringly "a retard" by the film's heavy. There's sharpness and intuition about him, along with kindness and strong feelings. All this does not jump out at you but keeps coming bit by bit.

Karl stands like a figure S, with his head and stomach thrust forward and his back hunched up. He has the shuffling walk we associate with old movies where convicts step out of weeks in The Hole (solitary). His jaw juts out, his lower lip covers the upper one. He speaks little, slowly and hesitatingly, breathes heavily, grunts and concludes his phrases with "hmms" and"mmms."

Yet that strange man is a likable being that one might wish to adopt, like a stray. That's what happens, in a sense. Most people are kind to him. On his first night of "freedom," Karl, having nowhere to sleep, returns to the hospital. Regulations forbid his staying there now, so the director takes him to his own home for a family dinner and a room. The local rurals are un-fussily decent too. It helps that Karl is a whiz at fixing small engines, like lawn mowers. This gets him a modest job in a garage and gains the respect of many.

Frank makes friends with young Frankie (Lucas Black). The boy's widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), works at the local Dollar Store whose discreetly gay manager is Linda and Frank's best friend.(He is played with economy by John Ritter, in the most sensitive part I can remember him in).

The cast of dramatis personae is small. The principal ones are essentially supporting characters to Karl. They are rounded up by Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam, impressively loutish), Linda's lover. A heavy drinker, he is constantly and disgustingly abusive of the fatherless Frank and nasty to Linda, yet he spends most his time in Linda's small house where he acts in insufferably dictatorial ways. A local fellow is right when he warns Karl that Doyle is a monster. Why the nice woman puts up with the monster is inexplicable, unless this indicates a major shortage of males in the area.

Young Frank soon talks his mother into letting Karl sleep in their garage. Soon he becomes something like a member of his hosts' small circle --which does not include Doyle. Only near the end of the film it became clear to me that Doyle was a construction worker. A nice bit of irony, since he is such a destructive man.

>From the start Doyle insults, and jibes at, Karl. He does the same, however, for his pals. Later, after a fit of violence that resulted in Linda kicking him out, Doyle returns with apologies. "Well, he's trying, but God knows for how long" she declares. Frank is more clear-eyed : "He's lying. I'm not stupid." Sure enough, Doyle proposes marriage but sets to Frank conditions worthy of a savage prison guard -- and he wants Karl out too.

The movie's pace is slow, but none of its scenes is protracted. Whether or not it would gain by getting trimmed down is something that I cannot decide on a single viewing. It seems to me, though, that since this is no ordinary, plot-and-action film but a character driven work, its emphasis on Karl does make the tempo fit the man's slowness.What is needed from the audience is that they adopt the old rhythm of a rural South.

Slowness does not mean boredom. There are enough bits of local color and people's traits to supply threads of realism and unforced humor. Like Karl diagnosing a sick engine as lacking gasoline. Like Karl and his passion for french fries. Like the rapport between the two outcasts, the gay man in a tiny town and Karl. Like a rotund colleague of Linda's, the Employee of the Month,who complains about all shoes and brings Karl a bunch of flowers:"They're not fresh, they're a special at $2.99 plus my 10 % employee discount."

There is much I will not detail about this film, most of it positive. (Look for Jim Jarmusch and Robert Duvall in unexpected short appearances). While the outcome is rather predictable, Karl's part is especially well done, all the more so since Mr.Thornton had the very difficult task of directing the movie, directing himself and probably doing daily rewrites.

Inevitably, Thornton-the-actor will bring up the acting of Geoffrey Rush, the mature David Helfgott in "Shine." It is a pity, especially at Oscar-time, to have to compare two tour-de-force performances at the extremes of the spectrum -- apples and oranges: one minimalist, the other wildly eccentric.

Noticeable in "Sling Blade" is the strategy to keep the visuals underlit, plain and not colorful. This may be taken too far, too systematically. It applies to sunny outdoor shots where the characters are often in the shady part of the image, yet not even lit by reflectors.

The photography uses mostly natural light,but there are times when the crypt-like darkness of interiors made me think that electricity was rationed in that part of Arkansas. This causes problems, such as hardly ever allowing us to get a good look at Linda's face. But no matter.In ambience, description and speech the film feels authentic. And the last line is a classic, on a par with the last words of Paul Muni ( "I steal") in the 1932 "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang." Here, back at the hospital, asked by his pal how he found the outside world, Karl replies:"It's too big."

In "The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein" by Alice B. Toklas, Ms. Stein says (and I quote from memory) "I always prefer the normal to the abnormal; it is so much more complex and interesting." Right she is, yet what films like "Sling Blade" and "Shine" have achieved is to make the abnormal as interesting as the normal.

(Written March 97)

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel