Billy Bob Thornton
Billy Bob Thornton (Play: Billy Bob Thornton)
Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, Robert Duvall, Rick Dial, Brent Briscoe, Christy Ward, Sarah Boss
With one feature film, an underutilized character actor emerged from relative obscurity to become one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. Although his career has had ups and downs since, it’s clear that a strong voice in cinema arrived with Sling Blade.
Billy Bob Thornton turned his script into a successful film that won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and secured him his first of two Oscar nominations for acting. Thornton plays Karl Childers, a mentally handicapped man recently released from a state hospital after murdering his mother and her lover when he was only twelve. As he returns to his home town, he begins a slow process of normalizing his life in the outside world while befriending a lonely boy (Lucas Black) whose father killed himself. Now all that remain are his widowed mother (Natalie Canerday), her boss and friend (John Ritter), and a mentally and physically abusive boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam).
It’s fairly obvious from the time you meet Yoakam’s slimey Doyle Hargraves where the film is heading. How this Southern saga unfolds is sometimes beautiful, occasionally frustrating. The music seems drawn directly from the 1980’s and feels entirely out of place in the narrative. The score aside, this is an exceptionally well acted film. Ritter is superb, Black is terrific, and Yoakam is surprisingly good. After watching this, I’m surprised that Canerday’s career didn’t take off. Her weary maternal performance is something that should have given her far more opportunities than she has since found.
Karl is a unique character in the film world. Mentally handicapped characters are often treated as mentally deficient, susceptible to whim, and completely unhinged when the script calls for it. Karl is well reasoned, thoughtful, caring and gentlemanly. He’s a good man trapped in a simple, imperfect body. Thornton breathes life into a trope that can too easily be abused for comic relief. There are some funny moments, but most of them are instigated by Karl, not at his expense.
Thornton’s directorial style is unhurried, uncomplicated, and unadorned. It’s a stripped down story that plays precisely as you would expect, but feels fresh regardless. His later works never quite lived up to this film’s lofty aspirations, which may be because the heights he had already reached were making everything subsequent feel inferior. Perhaps he’ll rediscover his voice some day. It’s also possible that Sling Blade was all he had in him.
June 14, 2021