Sling Blade, which marks Thornton’s directorial and solo writing debuts, is a gothic Southern parable about good and evil.
In One False Move, co-written by Thornton and Tom Epperson, Thornton played a congenial small-town sheriff. Here, he plays Karl Childers, a mildly retarded man who has been incarcerated for 25 years for slaying his mother and her lover.
In an eerie prologue, the childlike Karl is seen by the asylum’s window, wearing a weird half-smile on his face while staring straight ahead. Next to him stands a chatty inmate (J.T. Walsh), who talks of his sex crimes. Two high school girls prepare to interview Karl before his release. In a long, uninterrupted, darkly lit monologue, he recounts the murders he committed with a sling blade.
Uncomfortable rejoining society, Karl returns to the asylum at the end of his first free day; it’s the only place he knows. But later, the head of the institution arranges for a job and shelter in a nearby fix-it shop. Though hunched over and speaking in a monotone growl, Karl is met with kindness. He strikes up a friendship with a fatherless boy, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), whose widowed mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites him to move into their garage.
As Karl becomes part of the family, tensions arise between him and Linda’s lover, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Sober, Doyle is a tyrant who tortures Frank; drunk, he is dangerously violent. Vaughan (John Ritter), Linda’s gay boss at the local store, warns Karl that Doyle is a monster. Concerned with Linda and Frank’s well-being, Vaughan is contrasted with the intolerant, quick-tempered Doyle.
Taking the easy way out, Sling Blade centers on the friendship between Karl and Frank. Karl’s life is presented as a quest for inner peace, needing to demonstrate his capacity for goodness. In a role reversal that defies age, it’s Frank who treats Karl as his little brother. They form an eccentric family: A kind, single mother; a lonely son; an abusive lover; a discreet gay man; and a mysterious killer, whose calm yet firm visibility forces others to acknowledge him. The simple yet harsh Karl recalls the brutish Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. A slow-speaking, slow-moving man, with grotesque features and exaggerated gestures, Karl wears an impenetrable gaze and uses sparse, monotonous voice; his thick backwater growl rarely varies in pitch and volume.
Karl’s horrific action is attributed to his father’s (Robert Duvall) religious fanaticism and his abusive upbringing, seen in flashbacks to his childhood. Sling Blade highlights the noirish theme of the dark power of the past, but despite the dreariness and the dark visuals, the film shows some hope and even humor. True to form, the story leads toward an inevitable tragedy in which jutsic is restored. The ending, in which Karl is brought full circle to the asylum, raises an interesting question. Opting for a more humanistic resolution, Thornton avoids dealing with the issue of how effective is institutionalizing the mentally challenged as a corrective measure.
If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).