billy Bob Thornton's directorial debut takes its title from a kind of scythe -- a long, curved blade attached to a wooden handle, it's what you would use to knock down weeds along the side of a highway. As anyone who's held one knows, it takes a certain amount of rhythmic grace to wield a sling blade properly, and for its first hour, Thornton's film moves with just that kind of deft-but-easy motion. It cuts as cleanly as any American movie I've witnessed in a while.
"Sling Blade" opens in an asylum for the criminally insane in Arkansas, where a mildly retarded man named Karl Childers -- played by Thornton, who also wrote the film's screenplay -- is about to be released after 25 years. Abused as a child by fanatically religious parents, Karl was imprisoned for a youthful act of terrible vengeance. Stumbling upon his mother having rough sex with the town bully, and believing that she was being raped, he killed the man with a few sharp strokes of a sling blade. When his mother screamed that the bully was in fact her lover, Karl killed her as well. "I just seen red," he explains to a high school journalist who elicits his story. "Some fellers asked me if I had it to do all over again, would I? I reckon I would."
Now that it's time to leave the asylum, however, Karl doesn't want to budge. He has no life on the outside, and he finds interaction with strangers almost unbearably complicated. When Karl is pushed out into the world, Thornton imbues the film's early scenes -- of the lone man walking by the side of the road, or ordering French fries, or simply killing time outside a laundromat -- with a lean and surprisingly poignant kind of dignity.
It's Thornton's rough and nuanced performance as Karl, not his modest filmmaking skills, that sucks you so quickly into "Sling Blade's" vortex. As anyone who saw his turn as the drug-dealing killer Ray in 1992's "One False Move" knows, Thornton is a big, rangy, in-your-face presence -- he's James Carville re-imagined as a linebacker. Here, however, he tucks himself down into a role that's all clean but muted chords. With his loping gait, his thrust-forward jaw, his oddly shaved head and his penchant for buttoning his blue work shirts up to the top button, Karl seems like an odd conflation of Forrest Gump and Pruitt Taylor Vince's shy, overweight pizza cook in last year's "Heavy."
It's the kind of performance, full of hand-wringing and verbal tics, that could have become a cartoon. But part of what keeps Karl's character grounded, interestingly enough, is the deep and convincingly abrasive voice Thornton developed for the role. Equal parts gravel and hickory smoke, it's a sound that seems to emanate from a microphone planted deep in Thornton's chest. (It's the kind of voice I haven't heard since, as a kid, I hung around my grandfather's coal-mining buddies in West Virginia.)
It's no surprise that when Karl befriends a young boy named Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) at the laundromat, part of what attracts the boy to Karl is that voice. ("It makes me feel less nervous," he tells his mother.) The pair quickly become friends -- they're both outcasts -- and before long Karl has moved in with Frank and his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), and found a job fixing lawnmowers. There's trouble in the Wheatley home, however: Linda's boyfriend, Doyle -- portrayed with a tremendous amount of redneck confusion and glee by the country singer Dwight Yoakam -- abuses both her and Frank. "You're a weird little shit, Frank," he says to the boy, between slugs of beer. He refers to Karl as a "humped-over retard." He has even fewer kind words for Linda's lone protector, a sweetly gay supermarket manager (played wonderfully by John Ritter) who's forever trying to screw up his courage to confront Doyle.
You're aware throughout "Sling Blade" that Thornton, as a director, is striving for a mythical, almost biblical tone. He's clearly boned up on Southern gothic lit: The film tosses off echoes of both Faulkner and O'Connor. And for a while, everything works. (Even Daniel Lanois' pointless sonic noodlings on the soundtrack, and the Jim Jarmusch cameo, don't break this narrative's spell.) By its midpoint, however, Thornton has begun forcing both the film's poetry and the preternatural goodness of its simple-minded protagonist, and "Sling Blade's" sweet charms begin to curdle. Before you know it, it's become therapy hour -- everyone confesses his own private torments and blinkered childhoods. ("You and I are a lot alike," Ritter's supermarket manager says to Karl. "The hand we've been dealt in life. We're different.") And as Doyle grows increasingly violent, the other characters huddle together and trade homilies. I think I groaned audibly when Karl said to Ritter's character, "That boy lives inside his own heart -- and that's an awful big place to be."
In its final third, "Sling Blade" moves lumberingly toward a foregone conclusion: Karl is going to act to prevent Doyle from further terrorizing Frank and Linda. This is problematic in ways that go beyond its cinematic obviousness. There's something rotten about the way Thornton attempts to preemptively justify (and perhaps even glorify) whatever actions Karl may take -- it's that old Gump-like equation of simpleness with moral goodness. Worse, the entire situation is rendered somewhat absurd by the fact that you're not convinced that Frank and Linda are in immediate peril from Doyle. (Linda still kinda loves the lout.)
But the really perverse thing about "Sling Blade" is the way that, after so much goopy sentiment has been ladled over the other characters, you actually find yourself rooting for Doyle -- as portrayed by Yoakam, he's the most vivid, shit-kicking thing happening onscreen. It's a measure of how far this interesting and earnest first film has fallen.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor. MORE FROM Dwight Garner
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