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Bob Thornton’s Mesmerising Central Performance,
This review is from: Sling Blade [DVD] (DVD)
This 1996 Arkansas-set tale of (essentially) bigotry and persecution written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton has a subtly authentic feel to it, no doubt at least partly as a result of Bob Thornton’s own rustic upbringing in the State. Of course, Sling Blade has been (rightly) lauded for Bob Thornton’s brilliant central turn as the slow-witted, straight-talking Karl Childers, however, the film also represents a remarkably assured directing debut, as well as containing a restrained, perceptive and darkly comic script (for which Bob Thornton won an Oscar).
Cinematically, Sling Blade is relatively unspectacular, with Barry Markowitz’s camera simply and straightforwardly depicting the film’s rural backdrop, whilst Daniel Lanois’ inventive original music provides a haunting, 'floating’ feel to proceedings. Having said this, Karl’s story is 'topped and tailed’ by two brilliantly atmospheric scenes (reminding me of Milos Forman’s classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) in which Karl is being 'talked at’ by fellow ‘patient’, the unsettling Charles Bushman (J T Walsh in a superbly creepy turn). It is, though, primarily via the strength of Bob Thornton’s turn as the disturbed Childers, whose dead-pan, innocent visage and nervy demeanour conceal a painfully troubled past, that the film scores most highly, as, on being discharged back into the community, he befriends the young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) and is 'adopted’ into his home with 'single mum’ Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her violently unstable boyfriend Doyle (an impressive Dwight Yoakam).
Of course, one can see the film’s denouement coming a mile off, but this does not detract from what is, for me at least, a highly engrossing (more than) two hour running time. As well as achieving much subtle poignancy (and tension) as Karl finds his way in his new community (guided largely by his readings of the Bible, 'the Lord works in mysterious ways’), Bob Thornton includes much dark humour, often based on Karl’s simple, oblivious take on life – such as during the hilarious café scene with John Ritter’s gay family friend Vaughan, in Karl’s ‘joke telling’ attempts or in the sequence where Linda attempts to 'pair off’ Karl with Christine Renée Ward’s ‘similarly characterised’ Melinda ('I liked walking with you, I got a blister the size of a quarter on one heel’). Most of the film’s powerful scenes are those between 'father-figure’ Karl and the young Frank (Black is Increasingly good in the role), as Karl reflects on the circumstances of his childhood, whilst a similar theme runs through his confrontation with his uncaring, hermit-like father (a cameo by Robert Duvall).
Whilst the film’s conclusion is predictable, macabre and a little melodramatic, Bob Thornton manages to control any sentimentality pretty well (and even throw in some final dark humour). Sling Blade is a compelling demonstration of Bob Thornton’s talent (following his other impressive acting turns in films like A Simple Plan, The Man Who Wasn’t There, One False Move and Monster’s Ball) – a (rounded) talent which I can’t help feeling has probably been under-exploited.