Directed and Written by Billy Bob Thornton
After becoming thoroughly obsessed with the Fargo series last year (this coming from a guy who doesn’t watch television at all mind you) I also became obsessed with Billy Bob Thornton and immediately was googling what his best roles were. While I love his two roles in Coen films, especially his turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the lead character he plays in Sling Blade is not only a thoroughly memorable and unique creation – it was his own creation. Writing, directing and starring, Billy Bob does it all and in the process transforms himself into Karl Childers. No prostheses, just proper preparation and plain good acting.
We’re introduced to Karl just before he is due to be released from an asylum for the criminally insane. His nature is made apparent in the very first scene as one of his fellow inmates drags a chair to sit next to Karl so he can about crimes that he committed. Karl could not look more uncomfortable as this sick guy keeps talking about his dirty deeds, and as we see his reactions it doesn’t seem that this is a bad person at all. And because he has been institutionalised for almost his entire life, and the law stipulates he be released as he committed the crime when he was a child, his sentences has been served by the time he is a middle-aged man, despite having the mental capacity and maturity of a child.
The scenes that follow will suck you in deep into this film’s world. A young college student comes to the facility to interview Karl, and having been in the place since he was a young child, he isn’t quite ready for it. His doctor organises a dimly lit room where Karl can tell his story to the young college reporter. From here, Karl launches into a long, memorable and well-written monologue, explaining the ruthless upbringing that he experienced, and the events that lead to him taking the life of his mother and the man she was having an affair with. It is a tense scene, you can see the doctor flinch when the young girl pushes further and asks Karl further questions.
“Do you think you could kill again Karl?”
……“I don’t reckon I got no reason to hurt nobody”
Released from the only home he knows, he is sent to his town of birth. Realising he has nowhere to go, he returns to the facility a day later wanting to come back. But he has served his time and is sent back to his home-town and is given a job and shelter. Wondering around aimlessly, he soon meets young Charles, and as he is of the same maturity for the most part, they bond instantly, the young boy ‘liking how Karl talks’. Sentimentality in this film is used well, and isn’t overdone despite the dramatic and emotional scenes. Even a potential love interest doesn’t hurt the film at all as it simply depicts how the man, and the woman, struggle with social interaction, something I can certainly identify with. Not having those normal social cues that everyone seem to possess, like recognising body language or facial expressions or tone of voices makes it very hard to socialise with anyone at any time, so I empathised with Karl’s character in that scene, among many. It is hard not to. Another fascinating character is a gay man, Vaughn, who is probably the only other person who can understand what Karl goes through, as he knows exactly what stereotypes and ignorance is all about, especially living in a small, southern town. His role is not big, but his relationship with Karl and his friendship with Charles and his mother add a lot to the film. To go any further into the plot would spoil the film if anyone hasn’t seen this, so I will stop there.
One major achievement of this film is its depiction of mental illness in an understanding way. This isn’t a man who has done something because of his illness. This is a poor soul who was abused as a child, raised in an institution and whose current mental state is a result of all of this. This is the element of the film that I enjoyed the most, as I have heard some real horror stories in the Youth Work sector, yet the story that Billy Bob wrote for Karl Childers rivals the most brutal stories I have heard. Kudos must go to Billy then, as he has really dug deep down to write this character and flesh out what aspects of his childhood have caused him to be what the ignorant folk of the small town call a ‘retard’. What these people do not know is that his behaviour is happening for a reason. This film illustrates the potential consequences of what could happen to someone who experiences a horrid upbringing, as Karl did. This is exactly why I want to work in youth work, as there are too many shitty parents out there who don’t realise what they are doing, almost every word is having a permanent mental effect on their child, whether it is subconscious or otherwise. The film is asking the viewer: Can Karl overcome what his upbringing has done to him; how it has shaped the person he has become?
In addition to this, the movie also is an accurate portrayal of the stereotypes that still surround mental illness. “Retard” certainly isn’t the only insult Karl hears, though I’m not sure he could process what an insult actually meant given his extremely limited social education. Much like myself when I was younger, I literally did not understand the concept of an insult when one was thrown at me, and therefore did not react – much like Karl when he is called names. He is treated almost like a leper by many people, simply because he is different. But in contrast to this is the heart of the film, which glows in the characters that don’t see him any different from any other man, and this is of course most obvious in Charles as he is too young to have soaked up any idiotic stereotypes. He simply sees a person who is nice to him. The fact that his father died also adds to the layers of emotion involved in their friendship, but this father-figure aspect isn’t really explored and the film is better off for it, as Karl and Charles are essentially peers who like to hang out and talk together, with the murderous background of Karl looming over their relationship and the entire film, making for an emotionally tense story, start to finish.
IN A NUTSHELL?
Sling Blade is an incredibly written drama that doesn’t lose its impact due to over-sentimental moments. It is an intimate study into how the raising of a child plays a massive role in how that person develops into a fully grown adult. The colours have that muted 90’s look to them, which isn’t a huge flaw really, the direction is solid, some of the acting from the rest of the cast could have been a little better though. But Billy Bob steals the show here; if only he wrote more often!
written by jordan dodd ©
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