Ever since the first time I saw it when it first came out, I’ve identified Sling Blade as among my favorite movies, probably top ten. Having just watched it again for the first time in many years, I’m inclined to say more like top twenty or top twenty-five. So definitely still a movie I’d rate very highly, but just the most modest of downgrades.
In the case of the handful of movies that for whatever reason I love most, I can watch them repeatedly and always be fully into them. In some cases it may be that they’re deep enough that I’m always discovering another little nuance to appreciate. Or in some cases I suppose they’re like those rare exception songs or jokes that repetition never seems to ruin for whatever reason. If I’m with somebody who hasn’t seen one of these favorites of mine, I’m always eager to watch it again to introduce it to a new person. They might be skeptical that I’d really rather watch this film I’ve seen four times or seven times or whatever over something new, but that really is my preference.
Sling Blade now feels more borderline. I think I’d still put it in that category, but that’s not as much of a no-brainer as with the elite few I’m most attached to.
It’s still a terrific movie, though.
Actually my awareness of Sling Blade goes back to before it was ever made. There was an earlier short film about a half hour long called Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade that is very similar to the movie’s opening scene at the mental hospital. It had Billy Bob Thornton in the lead as the incarcerated patient Karl Childers who had murdered his mother and her teenage lover and was about to be released, with Molly Ringwald as the young journalist interviewing him. Thornton wrote it as well, and then a couple years later he expanded it into a feature film (with a different actress in Ringwald’s role), with again himself as writer and lead actor, and now director as well.
I saw the short and thought it was excellent. Mesmerizing, powerful—in the top 5%-10% of short films I’ve seen. So when I later heard Thornton had made it into a full-length movie, I was excited to see it.
It lived up to my high expectations. Maybe it couldn’t quite maintain the same level of intensity over two hours that the short film does for a half hour, but pretty close. I thought Thornton made very good decisions as far as how to create a larger story about this character and his life after his release.
Anyway, as I say the film is about a mental patient named Karl who is let out decades after having committed two murders when he was a teenager. He returns to his hometown, for seemingly no particular reason beyond that it’s close to where he was incarcerated and that it doesn’t occur to him to go anywhere else. So much time has passed that he no longer knows anyone there. (The exception is his aging father in an old shack on the edge of town or out in the sticks somewhere, whom Karl ultimately confronts in a wonderful scene. Robert Duvall is terrific as the father. It’s perfect casting, no doubt intended as a reminder that Duvall’s first major movie role decades earlier was as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Radley being a very similar character to Karl.)
Karl has no idea what to do with himself. He gets a job in a fix-it shop with the help of the man who runs the mental hospital, and after briefly staying in a back room there he gets a room to rent in a private home as a result of happening to meet and befriend a young boy Frank and then his mother Linda. Such progress has to be through the assistance of others and/or serendipity, as clearly he doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to intentionally do things like get a job or find a place to live, due to his level of mental functioning, not to mention the fact that he has been institutionalized for decades and has never had reason to develop or use even the most basic life skills like those.
By the way, what is Karl’s level of mental functioning? Wikipedia describes him as being “mentally retarded” and as having a “developmental disability,” and certainly he’s “off” to some significant degree. But there are also reasons to think he’s a sharp, insightful guy.
The movie is a bit playful on that point. There’s a scene with a comic edge to it of Karl conversing in a diner with Linda’s gay friend Vaughan. (Vaughan is played by John Ritter, someone I wouldn’t have thought of as a serious actor but in fact is really good in this. Indeed, one of the reasons I rate this movie as highly as I do is the stellar acting throughout, from Thornton himself who is fascinating as the peculiar Karl, to the aforementioned Duvall and Ritter, to Lucas Black who is very good as young Frank, to Dwight Yoakum—more on him below—who plays Linda’s boyfriend Doyle just right as an unstable, scary, creepy, alcoholic, violent, unpredictable, domestic abuser who veers back and forth from rage to apology sometimes in a matter of seconds.) Vaughan reads Karl’s “man of few words” persona less as an indication of retardation than as evidence that he is a deep thinker who chooses to keep his own counsel on most matters. He attempts to speak with him seriously, and then at one point asks to be let into his mind, to know what Karl is thinking just now.
Turns out Karl is thinking he might get another order of french fries.
Karl has some elements that I suppose might indicate someone on the autism spectrum, which is consistent with any level of IQ including quite high. Yet at the same time when we do get glimpses of what’s going on inside him—though most often he’s focused on very mundane things like whether to get more of those french fries—if anything he’s more emotionally evolved and more capable of empathy than the average person, which I don’t associate with people on the autism spectrum.
What I would say is he’s very self-directed, and only minimally aware of or apt to conform to social expectations. He’s generally very literal, neither using nor seemingly understanding things like humor, sarcasm, metaphor, etc. (with one moving, though perhaps not realistic, exception when late in the film he notes of his child friend, “That Frank, he lives inside of his own heart. That’s an awful big place to live in”). In a sense Vaughan is surely right that there’s depth to Karl, that there’s a lot going on inside him, but it’s intermittent. Much that happens around him goes over his head, and a lot of the time, indeed most of the time, his conscious thoughts likely don’t rise above whatever current impulse he might have to eat more french fries.
But in addition to the times that he’s oblivious to the social cues and other evidence around him that normal people would be in tune with, there are times he’s aware of it and responsive to it, and rarer times that if anything he’s taking in more than most of us do. Perhaps because his mind isn’t cluttered with consideration of more than a small percentage of the available evidence that most of us routinely understand and process, he can focus more on the little bit that he does pick up on and that he does care about—for example something like the emotional state of Frank—and be even more insightful about it than other people would be.
So it’s not that he’s particularly stupid or retarded in that sense, more like his mind is directed only toward a subset of what most of us notice and take into account, and thus he’s unusually slow in some areas and if anything unusually sharp in some. I’d say what his mind focuses on is the minimum amount of everyday stuff he needs to be functional (e.g., how to do his job, what route to walk to get from where he’s staying to his job, how to bathe and dress himself and personal things like that, etc.), and beyond that mostly emotional and moral matters of what people are feeling, whether they are benevolently or malevolently motivated and what can be anticipated of their future behavior, and so on.
He’s the classic “holy fool,” the kind of pure-hearted “simpleton” who in select areas is the opposite of foolish.
Once the evil Doyle—who is a mesmerizing character like Karl, for almost opposite reasons—is introduced, it’s obvious, some would say too obvious so as to make the story simplistic and fairy tale-like, that he and Karl are on a collision course.
Karl is this mysterious figure drifting through the movie, about whom we know very little beyond that he’s capable of murder, and that he has grown close to Linda and Frank and perhaps developed some sense of obligation to protect them. Doyle is a maximally provocative, troubled figure who speaks and acts in an impulsive and sometimes violent way, and who everyone senses is capable of going farther than he has gone so far.
One has to think that Karl will eventually kill Doyle, or at least that something like that will happen. Like maybe he’ll get right up to the point of killing Doyle and then have some revelatory experience that turns him away from that path, or maybe Doyle will kill him first preemptively, or maybe Frank will somehow recreate Karl’s past by killing his mother and her lover Doyle (unlikely), or maybe Karl will kill himself when he realizes he’s getting close to committing murder again, or something.
What’s interesting is that it’s the mental patient Karl whom we feel is a lot less likely to fly into a rage and impulsively harm someone than the allegedly sane Doyle is. Yeah, there’s something ominous about Karl, but it’s a slow burning fuse sort of thing, a sense that he might, in a very deliberate way, step outside moral taboos and the law to righteously strike. Whereas Doyle could get drunk and explode at any moment, with the explosion quite possibly being unintentional or semi-intentional, and being something he’s as likely as not to regret after the fact.
You sense that Karl never seriously considers any option other than passively accepting all that is happening to and around him, or killing Doyle. He doesn’t advise Linda to leave Doyle, he doesn’t notify law enforcement, he doesn’t suggest domestic counseling to Linda and Doyle, he doesn’t seek out a lawyer for advice. None of that stuff is part of his mental world. He’s like a robot programmed to kill if and only if certain extreme input is received, and you watch the whole movie wondering when or if his programming will be so triggered.
The people around him seem to sense that he is still capable of lethal violence, and that he may be approaching a point where he will strike down Doyle.
And they’re ambivalent about it. In a fascinating series of scenes late in the movie, Linda, then Frank, and then Vaughan have ambiguous one-to-one interactions with Karl, where their sense of foreboding inclines them to seek clarification of what Karl intends, and to dissuade him from the path they have some inkling that he might be on. Yet each hesitates, as they are not a hundred percent sure that they really want to know, and really want to dissuade him. So at the end of each encounter, as Karl walks off, they call out to him, but always too late, too softly, and too indecisively to succeed in keeping him there so that they can talk him out of doing anything violent.
Shades of Ivan maybe or maybe not inferring, consciously or unconsciously, that Smerdyakov intends murder and failing to intervene to stop him in The Brothers Karamazov.
Classic character and a classic movie. Strong recommendation for Sling Blade.