Dr. Daniel's review of Sling Blade
Sling Blade • Directed by Billy Bob Thornton.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canderday, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter and Robert Duvall. Written by Billy Bob Thornton. Rated R. 134 minutes.
Okay, here's the deal. I love underdogs. I will root against the favorite every chance I get. There's always a little guy out there who will never get the respect he deserves, and those are the people that I pull for. I mean, hey. I grew up with the Atlanta Braves as a hometown team. You have to be a devoted underdog lover to be a Braves fan for 30 years. It makes their current reign as top dog even more tasty a treat.
And that's what absolutely has me tickled pinker than a baby's butt about the Oscars this year. Suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, comes the name "Billy Bob Thornton." You could practically hear people's jugular veins popping as they turned to the folks next to them and snorted, "Billy Bob who?"
Everybody, that is, except yours truly. If you will remember, friends and neighbors, 'twas I, Dr. Vincent Benjamin Daniel, who told the Oscar voters in an open letter made available to you dear faithful readers, that Billy Bob Thornton deserved a serious look. I never believed it would actually happen. Can I take credit for the nomination? No.
It belongs firmly in the hands of Billy Bob.
I saw Sling Blade for the first time in a little "art house" screening room in Buffalo, New York. (Yes, they do have "art house" screening rooms in Buffalo.) I was there for a medical conference, and really didn't need to sit through another seminar on radical new treatments for planters' warts, so I ducked out to the theater. I had no idea what Sling Blade was about, but I knew Billy Bob Thornton's name from another unheard-of jewel of a film called One False Move. I also knew he used to be on that short-lived sitcom with John Ritter and that "Night Court" chick. You know, the blonde with the great hoo--WHOAA! Almost slipped into my chauvinist jumpsuit there.
Well, back to the flick. I was absolutely stupefied. I saw it again the other night, and I was yet again stupefied. Restupified if you will. This film is engrossing, more so than anything I've seen in the past year. It just grabs you immediately, in a wicked scene with character actor extraordinaire J. T. Walsh morosely dragging a straightback chair across a slab floor, with noisy intent. From there, the viewer is tossed quickly to an interview sequence where Thornton's character, Karl Childers, utters a chilling monologue about his guilty past. These first utterances are delivered in the best lit scene I've seen in a month of Sundays.
In this monologue, we're introduced to the character, his voice, his thoughts, his tics, his mannerisms. Thornton's Karl is a mental patient and has been one for almost twenty years. He's being released back out into the world, cured of his criminal tendencies. He hooks up with a young boy named Frank, played by Lucas Black, who innocently befriends the aimless Karl. Through the boy, Karl comes to know Frank's widow mother (Natalie Canderday), her closet homosexual boss (played by the surprisingly brilliant John Ritter), and her sinister boyfriend.
This boyfriend character is one of the sleaziest roles ever, a multidimensional creep whose every dimension is as freaky as the others. This character would have been a dream part for some up-and-coming method phenom, but Thornton, who wrote and directed this movie, chose to give it to somebody with almost no acting experience. He gave the part to country singer Dwight Yoakam, and ol' Dwight grabs this part with both paws and chokes it until it submits to his will. He plays it with all its flaws, and never seems to act at all. It almost looks, God forbid, like Dwight has known plenty of stupid mean rednecks like Doyle Hargraves, and just does what he's seen them do.
But I digress. What this movie is about is Karl. Thornton plays Karl as a sort of Bizarro-world Forrest Gump. Karl is just as simple as Gump, but, rather than playing ping pong and skippering a shrimp boat, Karl is struggling desperately just to keep up. He does what he's told, and he answers questions when they're asked, but, other than that, he tries his best to just grasp what is going on around him. His grunts, his twitches, they're part of the character, sure, but they're something else. Upon second viewing, it becomes noticeable that Karl's anxiety level speeds up the twitches, and brings on more vocalizations. Watch Billy Bob in a scene where Dwight is yelling and carrying on. Karl is quiet, but he is aware of everything. His internal warning system is going off, and he doesn't know who to tell.
This movie just stabs you with its simple brilliance. From the terrific cinematography of Barry Markowitz to the haunting score of Daniel Lanois, this "little" movie packs more explosive whallop than all the big-budget volcano movies ever made, combined. It makes me grin just thinking about it.
It's movies like this one that should scare the holy hockey-sticks out of Hollywood. It takes a cast of unknowns, a next-to-nothing budget, sprinkles in a few dynamic actors that the west coast elite choose to ignore, like Ritter, Walsh, and James Hampton (probably best known as the guy who gets burned up instead of Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard), and gives the director's reigns and starring role to the film's WRITER. And somehow, this Hollywood aberration winds up earning two Oscar noms, while deserving a handful more.
And, Hollywood, you should be way scared. I warned you a while back to get in line to kiss up to brother Billy Bob. Now, the line is longer than the lines for the Star Wars rerelease. Hope you got your ticket early, pal. Billy Bob rules the roost now.