As far as I'm aware, Billy Bob Thornton has made two films about dangerous deranged characters on the loose in rural Arkansas. The second was Primary Colors, the Bill Clinton roman à feet-of-clay in which Billy Bob played James Carville way too well - to the point where the two men merged in my mind, and I can't really remember any movie Thornton's made since. Yes, yes, I know he's got a sequel to Bad Santa coming out any minute, but do you really want to remember that? He's an eccentric fellow, and evidently has mixed feelings about his movie career: in a memorably disastrous appearance on the CBC to promote his musical activities, he claimed to have been sideswiped by Jian Ghomeshi, and without even going on a date with him - all because Ghomeshi had the temerity to mention that Thornton was also an actor. For a while, Billy Bob was rather more than that for a while. Indeed, he numbers among his Mickey Rooney-sized catalogue of ex-wives Angelina Jolie, although no cooing press coverage ever referred to Billy Bobgelina.
As I say, I tend to blame the Bad Santa phase of his career on his getting mixed up with Bill and Hill in that terrible Clintopic. But his previous Arkansas frolic was a very different story. It was released exactly 20 years ago - November 1996 - and is a very fine movie. Written and directed by Thornton, Sling Blade was developed from an earlier screenplay of his that George Hickenlooper had turned into a short film (half-an-hour) a couple of years earlier, with Molly Ringwald and J T Walsh. The latter was retained for the feature-length version, but not, alas, Miss Ringwald. Sling Blade is the story of Karl Childers, a developmentally disabled Arkansan who, having been institutionalized since the age of twelve, finds himself a quarter-century later released from the state mental hospital and back into the world.
At a certain level, lots of hoary Hollywood chestnuts are present: the reviled outsider who becomes a lonely young boy's only friend, the homosexual with a surer sense of family values than the feckless straight guys... But motion pictures are the art of execution, and, if Sling Blade has nothing very original to say, it says it brilliantly and subtly and in a way that makes the players and their predicaments ring very true. Take the first scene. We see two patients in the Arkansas state mental institution: One of them is obviously our protagonist, but which is it? The patient facing us is telling the other a crude story about a transsexual hooker he erroneously picked up. Gradually, we realize that the guy who isn't saying a word is, in fact, the star of the movie, the one we're supposed to be paying attention to. Thornton, a first-time director, shows a keen sense of focus: Karl's silent entrance has drawn us into the pace and perspective of the movie - and into the character's clouded and ultimately unknowable head.
As Karl himself, Thornton wears his pants hoisted high, his shirt buttoned up and his lower lip folded over the top one in a kind of permanently cheery grimace. He speaks in a gravely drone — "Ah like them French-fried potatuhs'"— punctuated by a weird sound halfway between a throat-clearing and self-agreement — "Mm- mmmm". It was briefly a thing back in 1996: one of my favorite Ellen moments was when she mimicked Billy Bob on her old sitcom. When Karl was twelve, he came upon his mother and a boy from school in flagrante and killed them with his sling blade, which is a kind of scythe, for brush-cutting: as Karl always explains it, "Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a Kaiser blade." Now, 25 years later, he is out of the state's care and returned to his home town.
As soon as we meet Doyle, the abusive boyfriend of Karl's landlady, we know there will, inevitably, be a second episode of violence. The movie is a quiet, absorbing journey between these two points, slowly revealing the inflection points of Karl's life - the moment when his abusive parents' improvised abortion procedure fails to rid them of an unwanted sibling for Karl, and so a young boy is obliged to dispose of his own baby brother and "return him to the good Lord". The film hinges on the contrast between Thornton's calm, unhurried performance and the dark rage we know his character is capable of.
What makes Sling Blade is the richness and ease of its characters, with the best actors in the tiniest parts. Two of them were dead far too young within a couple of years of this picture: at the time the great J T Walsh was, in Playboy's words, "everybody's favorite scumbag", but he usually played sly, corrupt, white-collar scumbags. Here, he's several notches down from his usual social status, bookending the picture as Karl's fellow inmate, and his polar opposite - cruel and garrulous. The other solid performance is a then familiar name in a role you'd never think of him in: sitcom star John Ritter spent the Seventies pretending to be, for tedious reasons, an unconvincingly gay roommate in "Three's Company" (the inferior American remake of British telly's "Man About The House"). Here he indulges in a droll jest on his own celebrity and plays a bona fide gay, in ugly specs and a bad buzz cut, who manages the town's crappy dollar store. Neither Ritter nor Walsh were ever big-time Hollywood stars, but I wouldn't want to see anybody else in these roles.
There are other stellar turns in minimal parts, too: Robert Duvall makes a one- scene appearance as Karl's dad, and country singer Dwight Yoakam gives a superbly balanced reading as Doyle, the vicious redneck drunk. Filling out the cast are odds and ends like Rick Dial, a real-life high-school pal of Thornton's whom he pressed into service as the boss of the auto shop where Karl works. Under the film's non-flashy direction, Dial blends in with the Hollywood warhorses effortlessly: after Karl fixes up his first engine, Dial says, "I'll just be damned." "I'll be damned" would have been a dull line, but the "just" transforms it. I don't know whether that monosyllabic addition was his idea or Thornton's script, but it sounds to me like pure Arkansas and helps make Sling Blade feel unusually real.
Speaking of slinging, I see I've slung around a lot of words - "redneck", "country singer", "dollar store" - that might easily lead you to believe this is the usual condescending Hollywood rural clichés, like Oliver Stone using Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire" on the soundtrack of U-Turn, which came out a year or two after this. But for Sling Blade's music Billy Bob Thornton turned to Quebec's Daniel Lanois. I doubt Lanois had ever set foot in Arkansas, yet his score deepens and colors the story perfectly. If Thornton's directorial debut foretold a stellar career that never quite followed, his excellent choices here are a reminder that on film "reality" and "authenticity" are subtler and wider-ranging than many directors assume.
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