Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-Four


#24 — Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, 1996)
Before he was a tabloid fixture as Angelina Jolie’s second husband, before he was the go-to actor for mildly befuddled raunchy comedy heroes, before he was just another movieland refugee pursuing a vanity music career, Billy Bob Thornton was a damn fine screenwriter. He’d been kicking around as an actor for a few years when the first film that boasted his wordsmith handiwork was released, 1992’s One False Move. That was followed by the sharp, small drama A Family Thing. The films shared a sensibility shaped by Thornton’s Arkansas upbringing, especially a languid ease that felt like a product of muggy southern summers when there was no particular hurry to get on with business and everyone was probably best served if a story told from a slowly rocking porch swing took all day. He allowed time and space for deeply exploring character, and showing how the intricacies of the plots impacted the people moving through them.

For his directorial debut, Thornton maintained those qualities and added levels of empathy and emotional insight that bordered on staggering. In Sling Blade, Thornton plays Karl Childers, a mentally disabled man who has been institutionalized for years following an act of violence perpetrated before he’d even reached his teenage years. When he’s deemed fit for release, he settles in a small Arkansas town, content with a humble job and the occasional plate of biscuits and mustard. He also befriends a fatherless boy enduring his own struggles with a life largely marked by disappointment. The film has its actions, its conflicts, its incidents, but it is largely about how people relate to one another with the relatively blank slate of Karl–who’s as likely to communicate with grunts as words–serving as the ideal window to the deceptive complexities of it all. His inability to process those nuances leads him to make assessments that are more direct, and, in their own way, more pure. He sees the world in simple terms of cause and effect, leading him to the remarkable and moving conclusion that nothing should be valued more than kindness. And since it should be valued, it must also be protected.

There’s certainly an arc to the story, an adherence to the common structure of fiction filmmaking, and Thornton’s vanishing act into Karl Childers doesn’t disguise that he’s a character built more out of invention than observation. Still, the film feels uncommonly real. Such care has been brought to it, as if a single stumble could undo it all. There’s an overwhelming gentleness about the film, even as it considers the impact of callousness and violence, eventually reaching the grim conclusion that the only thing that can counter an act of violence is a greater act of violence. It doesn’t reach this point weighted with thunderous music or wild slashes of confrontational imagery. It gets there with the same calm exactitude that flows through the rest of the film. Sling Blade is beautifully made with a fine visual sense and tender performances. But it is, first and foremost, a writer’s film, an elegant novel that has instead been crafted for the screen. Thornton’s signature overlays it, this film that is unmistakably of him and the troubled south he came from.

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