Will you ever kill anyone again, Karl?
I don't reckon I got no reason to keel nobody.
Have you noticed that all the memorable films of 1996-- "The English Patient", "Secrets & Lies", "The Spitfire Grill", and "Shine", are all variations on the same theme: the wounded soul emerges from a lengthy period of isolation to confront the cold and painful world that does not eagerly accept them? "Sling Blade", the feature which veteran Hollywood writer Billy Bob Thornton (he also wrote "One False Move" and "A Family Thing") wrote, directed and starred in, belongs to this group.
"Sling Blade" is actually based on a short film that Billy Bob Thornton wrote in 1993 called "And Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade", which starred himself as Karl Childers , a retarded man being released from a mental institution where he has been incarcerated for twenty-five years for a murder committed when he was a child. In this short film, Karl Childers is interviewed by a high school reporter (played by Molly Ringwald) about his release, and Karl begins a long monologue about the murder of his mother and her lover at his hands, with a sling blade.
'Cuz I wuz sittin' out there in the shed one evenin' not doin' too much o' nothin', just starin' at the walls waitin' for my momma to come out an' give me my bible lesson... yeah. I heard a commotion up in the house... so I run on the screened in porch to see what's goin' on. I looked in the window theres and saw my mother lyin' on the floor without any clothes on. I seen Jesse Dixon layin' on top o' her... he was havin' his way with her. Well, I just seen red. I picked up a kaiser blade sittin' by the screen door, some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade. It's got a long handle kinda like an axe handle. With a long blade, shaped, like a bananer. Sharp on one edge and dull on the other. It's what the highway boys use to cut down weeds and whatnot. Well, I was there in the house and hit Jesse Dixon upside the head with it, knocked him off my mother. Well, I reckon that it didn't quite satisfy me, so I hit him again with the sharp edge and blown near cut his head off, keeled him. My mother jumped up and she hollered, "What'd you kill Jesse for? What'd you kill Jesse for?" Well, gone to find out I don't reckon my mother didn't mind what Jesse was doin' to her. I reckon that made me madder than what Jesse made me. So I taken the kaiser blade, some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade, and I hit my mother upside the head with it. Keeled her.
"Sling Blade" begins with the exact same sequence as ASFCIASB, and then follows Karl out into the real world. Though SB has often been compared to "Forrest Gump", when we first hear Karl speak about the murder, instead of friendly and soft-spoken manner of Mr. Gump, we hear Karl's gruff voice, see his expressionless face with perhaps a glimmer of evil under the surface, and see his habit of rubbing his hands together as he speaks. As he speaks about hacking his mother and her lover to death, the moody lighting and his didactic recitation demonizes Karl, and it is hard to determine if he is sincere about being reformed.
I reckon I'm gonna have to get used to lookin' at purdy people.
Guess you do.
I reckon I'm gonna have to get used to them lookin' at me too.
Karl is then released, and he boards a bus to his home town. After wandering around for most of the day, he befriends a boy at the laundromat, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), and helps him carry his laundry home. He gets a job at a local garage, taking like a duck to water fixing small engines, and lives in the back room.
Don't you have anybody?
No, sir. Never did know too much o' nobody down there. Not that be helpin' me out no way.
Look Karl, the truth is I don't know where they expect you to go or what they expect you to do. If it was up to me, you can come back and stay if you wanted to. I'm just tryin' to do my job. You follow me?
A few days later, he meets Frank again, and meets his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday). Sensing that Frank feels at ease with Karl around, she invites Karl to live in their garage. After moving in, Karl learns why Frank does not feel at ease-- the beer-swilling, loud-mouth, boorish 'white trash' boyfriend of Linda, Doyle Hargreaves (Dwight Yoakam). He has threatened Linda in the past to prevent her from leaving him, and he is antagonistic toward Frank, Karl, and Linda's best friend, the gay manager of the Dollar Store Linda works at, Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter, in quite a different role than we are accustomed to seeing him in).
How'd your momma die?
You don't need to hear things like that. You just a boy. You need to think about good thoughts while you still a boy. Be plenty time for all th'other.
Over time, Karl gains a better understanding of the world around him, such as knocking on the door if you want someone to open it for you. He is also exposed to a moral dilemma that cannot be solved easily: Linda will not terminate her relationship with Doyle-- instead, she allows him to become more and more entangled in their lives, despite his drunken rages, his clear hatred for Frank, and his lack of respect for anyone. Karl feels compelled to rectify the situation, for Frank and Linda's sake, but does not know how.
How come her'd be girlfriends and all with him if he be mean to her?
She says it's for the times when he's good to her. She's lonely since Daddy died. Sometimes she says she don't know why. He threatened to kill her if she left him. My daddy would kill him if he was still here and somebody was mean to momma. Vaughan, he's real good to momma. Vaughan, that you met. But he's not able to do anything to Doyle. He's funny... not funny ha ha; funny queer. He likes to go with men instead of women. That make him not be able to fight so good. But he is nice though. He's from St. Louis... queer people get along better in the big town.
You can tell that Thornton took his time to get everything 'just right' for this film. The well-written dialogue flows effortlessly and the story draws you in subtly with it's slowly-simmering pathos, but still manages to keep you on your toes. As you watch the film, the fear is always in the back of the mind that Karl will lose control, or do something inadvertently that will hurt him or someone close to him, which goes back to the original question posed at the beginning of the film: is Karl reformed?
Thornton plays with the audience's expectations from this kind of film, building a scene to an obvious cliché, only to put a spin on it for either comic effect or to send the story off in another direction. This occurs right up to the somewhat ambiguous ending, that does not seem ambiguous at first glance. Karl finally makes a choice by the film's end, but upon reflection, it is morally-dubious and poses many questions. Who is the actual villain in SB? Was Karl's decision actually inevitable, or was it merely the only one he knew how to make? Had Karl actually matured... or was he as misguided by new-found emotions as he was when he was 12? Was Karl's action justified? Perplexing questions raised by this simple film, indeed. Whatever the interpretation, the difference between this film and "Forrest Gump" is clear: whereas Forrest Gump stumbled his way through history and generally imitated those around him, Karl Childers makes his own decisions, and faces the consequences of them.
You seem to be a thinker. You always seem deep in thought.
Tell me something... what are you thinking right now?
I was thinkin' I might take more of these potaters home with me.
How about before that?
Let me think... before that I was thinking I could use me another six to eight more of cans of that meat.
In addition to Thornton's touching portrayal of Karl, strong performances are seen by Black as a young boy wiser beyond his years, Canerday as a woman with a good heart trying her best to keep Doyle at bay, Ritter as the compassionate yet powerless bystander, Yoakam as the over-the-top-boorish boyfriend, Robert Duvall as Karl's father of few words, J.T. Walsh (the villain in "Breakdown") as the creepy serial killer in the hospital with Karl, and director Jim Jarmusch ("Night on Earth", "Dead Man") as an ice cream vendor. Even the performances in the minor roles are memorable (check out the guard standing in the background as Karl is being brought to the interview), except for the stilted acting of Karl's co-workers at the garage (must have been Thornton's friends).
"Sling Blade" is a classic. It is a film that will probably be studied by up-and-coming screenwriters and directors for its carefully-crafted scenes and impressive dialogue. With such a simple premise and a simple character, Thornton has created an intellectually-challenging story and characters that demand your sympathy.