Sling Blade (1996)

“Sometimes a hero comes from the most unlikely place.” Picture this scene: On the set of a forgettable 1987 HBO movie titled The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, Billy Bob Thornton sulks in his trailer, realizing that his film career hasn’t amounted to shit. He has a total of four lines in a movie that stars Val Kilmer, an up-and-coming actor who he dislikes immensely. Completely frustrated, his head shaven for the film, Thornton stares into the mirror, extends his lower lip and lets out a few grunts—the character of “Karl Childers” is born! Over the next decade, Thornton continues to develop the character and in 1993 turns the bit into a 25-minute short film titled Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade. Finally, he receives the funding to turn the project into a full-length feature film about a mental patient who has just been released from the hospital to an uncertain future. The best thing about the film is the way that it continually defies your expectations. For instance, Karl befriends a young kid named “Frank Wheatley” (Lucas Black), who introduces Karl to his mother, “Linda” (Natalie Canerday). Instead of recoiling in horror at the gangly, drooling Karl, she welcomes him with open arms and invites him to stay in the garage. In another scene, Linda’s abusive boyfriend, “Doyle Hargraves” (Dwight Yoakum), and his redneck friends insist on taking Karl on a beer run. We believe that they are truly going to beat the living shit out of him, but nothing happens. John Ritter (Three’s Company) and J. T. Walsh (Red Rock West) round out the stellar cast. Robert Duvall also appears in a bit role as Karl’s father. Some people were disturbed by the film’s inevitable, violent conclusion; however, I believe that the ending is far more complex and open for debate than some of the simplistic arguments that have been put forth. Is Karl a Christ-like character (he carries a Bible and a book on carpentry), a violent sociopath or just a simple man caught up in a tragic set of circumstances? Thornton leaves us with many questions to debate and ponder. For his efforts creating Sling Blade, Thornton was nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar and he took home an Academy Award for “Best Adapted Screenplay.”

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