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Sling Blade (1996)

Sling Blade (1996) may be old as movies go, but as somebody said, every movie is new when you're seeing it for the first time. When I watched Sling Blade for the first time it blew me away.

Filmed on a budget of $1,000,000, Sling Blade earned nearly $25,000,000 in its year of release and has become a cult classic recognized with a tenth anniversary DVD Director's Cut edition (2005). Thornton won an Oscar for his script, a rewrite of one he'd written for a short black and white feature called Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade (1994), and received a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Sling Blade is set in a small Arkansas town and Thornton's casting of amateurs to interact with professionals contributes to the authenticity of the setting. The acting is so natural and believable that it is not possible to tell the amateurs from the pros.

The story revolves around Karl Childers who killed his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old and has spent the past 25 years in a mental institution. He is slow of speech and moves rather like Frankenstein's monster. I read somewhere that to achieve Karl's unique mode of locomotion Thornton put crushed glass in his shoes.

Upon his release Karl goes back to the town where he grew up, but has no one to take him in. We find out only towards the end of the film that Karl's father (Robert Duval) still lives there, but as Karl's abuser, he is not someone Karl would go to for help.

Unlike conventional Hollywood films which tend to portray Southern people as either comical louts or bigoted psychos, Sling Blade offers a slice of small town Arkansas life that reflects a more humane reality.

Karl's past is no secret, but the townspeople do not shun him. The director of the mental institution lets him spend the night in his home when he realizes that Karl has nowhere to go. The local garage owner is willing to take him on as a small engine repairman and permits him to sleep in the garage, giving him a key so that he won't feel that he's still locked up.

The first friend Karl makes is a young boy, Frank, played by Lucas Black who was about 14 in 1996. Karl helps Frank carry a heavy load of laundry and Frank responds by offering his friendship. He does not find Karl's odd appearance and mannerisms repellent. Frank's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), seeing how much the boy likes Karl, invites him to come live in a room in her garage.

As Karl grows fond of Frank and Linda, he's troubled by the way they are treated by Linda's alcoholic, abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakum). As we learn from Karl's reminiscences, his parents treated him abominably because of his disability, forcing him to live in a shed like an animal. The abused child in him identifies with Frank and he becomes fiercely protective of him.

Linda's boss, store manager Charles Bushman, is played stupendously by John Ritter. Charles is a homosexual with a very strange haircut and mannerisms as bizarre as those of Karl. I recognized him by his voice before I could tell who he was by looking at him. Charles is kind-hearted and concerned about Linda's relationship with Doyle.

The story moves towards its inevitable conclusion with the cosmic fatalism of Macbeth. The viewer can only watch, mesmerized, as it plays out.

If you haven't seen Sling Blade, treat yourself.

If you haven't seen it since 1996, watch it again. It is a gem. Let' all hold the thought that Thornton can reach that level again.

Billy BobThornton was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1955. He went to Los Angeles in 1980 to pursue his dreams of acting and screenwriting. He held various day jobs and received some attention for his acting and writing. The phenomenal success of Sling Blade shot him to the top of the Hollywood heap. It won numerous awards besides the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 1996, by the way, was the year of The English Patient, Fargo, and Shine, whose Geoffrey Rush edged out Thornton for Best Actor.

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