Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, Robert Duvall
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Billy Bob Thornton
Sometimes a hero comes from the most unlikely place.
"Sling Blade," the 1996 film written and directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, is not an easy film to watch. It's subject matter is serious and nearly every moment of the film is either emotionally intense or so perfectly paced that the film plays with this overwhelming anxiety hanging over it at all times. Then, there's the matter of Thornton's channeling of Karl, a simple man released after years in a "hospital," where he was placed following the murder of his mother and her lover when Karl was 12. It's so deliberate, so intense and so hypnotic that even watching the film becomes a physically exhausting experience.
Thornton's Karl is, apparently, a gentle man with an emotionally intense core. One can never be sure whether his slow, deliberate nature is completely a result of his slower intelligence or his guarded, fractured emotions. The fact that this is so challenging to decide is a tribute to Thornton's balanced, insightful performance.
Despite Karl's obvious lackings in intelligence, he gets a job fixing small motors, befriends a boy named Frank, and is eventually invited by Frank's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), to live in the family's garage. Conflict erupts from her jealous, redneck boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) and, well, the rest simply must be seen.
"Sling Blade" captured the Best First Feature prize for Thornton from the Independent Spirit Awards, along with a screenplay award at the Oscars. While Thornton's performance was Oscar-nominated, somehow the Academy thought there was a better performance in 1996 from a Male Actor. They were wrong.
Likewise, the lack of a nomination for the powerful, focussed performance of country singer Dwight Yoakam is almost impossible to fathom. Yoakam sizzles here in portraying a boyfriend who can, at the flip of a cowboy hat, be tender and paternal then abusive and jealous. It's a tremendous performance.
"Sling Blade" is, without a doubt, one of the best independent films ever made with a near perfect combination of strong script, focused direction, solid performances down to the smallest role, and beautiful cinematography. Sadly, it suffered the fate of last year's "The Woodsman," a stellar film limited by its intimidating, well presented subject matter and with performances so strong the film is "too much" for your general filmgoing audience.
"Sling Blade" is one of those "must see" films for true connoisseurs of film. It is not a film that every connoisseur will absolutely adore, but it is a film that simply begs to be seen by those who respect the craft of filmmaking. "Sling Blade" is exhausting yet exhilarating, troubling yet insightful, and powerful yet numbing. "Sling Blade" is a film you may not embrace, but I guarantee you will not forget.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic