Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Billy Bob
Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday,
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 135 Minutes
Release Date: August 4, 2009
“So, what was it like out there in the world?”
“It was too big.”
Re-watching Sling Blade, I realized something I hadn’t taken notice of during my previous viewings. It occurred to me that there hadn’t been another film like it in the time since its release, in the sense that no other film after it had even attempted to tell a similar type of story. I find that to be a testament to just how remarkable an achievement it remains.
When it was released 13 years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long), it became one of the most celebrated independent film sensations of the decade. It also introduced audiences to a fresh talent by the name of Billy Bob Thornton. Despite having appeared in numerous supporting roles in movies such as Tombstone, and already garnered immense acclaim for his screenplay for the 1992 thriller One False Move, Thornton was very much an unknown until buzz began surfacing about the film that was clearly a passion project for him, which he first conceived as a stage play.
As writer, director and star of this eccentric and deeply haunting character study set amongst the Deep South, Thornton not only crafted a work of true cinematic originality, but also ended up creating one of the most iconic film characters in film history. He was also rewarded with a much deserved Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
As Karl Childers, a hulky, mentally challenged man with a dark past, Thornton delivers a character and performance that you simply can’t turn your eyes away from. He fully immerses himself in the character to the point where the actor is flat out unrecognizable. And given that nobody, including myself, knew who Thornton was at the time, it was understandable to assume that this was how the actor walked, talked, and acted in real life.
Few films have mastered the chilling effect of the film’s opening scenes. As Karl, housed in a mental institution, is gazing out through a window, a fellow and much creepier patient (the late J.T. Walsh) sits down beside him and delivers a disturbing monologue about unfortunate encounter he had in the past. It immediately establishes something that will repeat itself several times throughout the film, which is that Karl can’t help but be forced to listen to things and details he would rather not hear, due to his mental state.
What comes next is a powerhouse of a monologue delivered by Karl himself, as two college students arrive at the hospital to interview him for their school paper. In a dimly lit room, which makes this scene all the more powerful, Karl reveals to the students the very incident that led him to be where he is now. The camera slowly pans around him as the story builds.
What we learn is that Karl, in his younger years, walked in on his mom and her lover during an act of lovemaking. Karl mistook the lover’s actions and thought he was attacking his mom, and struck the man with a lawnmower blade (aka a “sling blade”). And upon seeing his mom enraged by what he did, Karl snapped and killed her too.
You could basically hear a pin drop by the end of Karl’s story. Strangely enough, this all takes place on the very day Karl is being released from the mental institution. With no other option before him, Karl begins to make his way home by his own two feet.
In no time at all, he ends up getting a job working at a small garage, as he is pretty nifty with mechanical parts. And he always looks forward to a daily helping of French fries, or as he calls them “french fry potaters”. The only difficult thing Karl is dealing with is re-adjusting to the outside world, so much to the point that he actually travels back to the mental hospital and asks to stay longer.
That difficulty soon changes when Karl crosses paths with a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black). The two start to bond almost immediately. Frank takes such a liking to his new friend that he is eager to introduce him to his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), at her workplace. Before long, Karl and Frank are pretty much inseparable as friends.
But there lies a huge problem in Frank’s life. His mother’s current boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) is very much an abusive monster. We see that for ourselves in an unforgettable scene where Doyle, having invited over some friends for a musical gig on the front lawn, gets into a drunken rage and lashes out at his unhappy band mates before turning his anger to Karl, Linda and Frank.
This particular scene is striking for multiple reasons, the first of which is the amazingly frightening performance of country singer Yoakam. I’m not sure if he had any acting experience prior to this film, but it was the first film I’d seen him in. Either way, Yoakam clearly illustrated that he’s a natural acting talent because he was flat out scary as the monstrous Doyle.
But also, the scene also reminds us of the opening of the film where Karl was forced to listen to the words of the creepy mental patient. He’s forced to do the same in this scene, where he is seen nearly out of frame sitting on a couch as Doyle verbally abuses everyone. The third effective element is the way the scene concludes, which is most unexpected.
This sets into motion a dilemma for Karl. Becoming friends with Frank and Linda is without question the happiest thing to ever happen to him. But Doyle’s increasingly violent behavior towards them could possibly leave Karl with no other choice but to do the same thing that placed him in the mental institution.
The film also features a terrific performance from the late John Ritter. It was the first time I remember seeing Ritter in a dramatic role, in addition to a role where he was truly cast against type. He is memorable as Vaughn, a co-worker and very close friend of Linda’s who’s openly gay, which leads him to being a frequent victim of Doyle’s verbal bullying.
It’s one of the most riveting and original character studies to ever exist. Sling Blade remains a powerhouse work simply because, as mentioned earlier, there’s no other film like it. It brought us a fantastic screen presence, an unforgettable character and a truly haunting story all wrapped into one mesmerizing film package.
I was eager to see how this film would turn out on Blu-ray, since this is the sort of film that you wouldn’t exactly expect to look spectacular even on standard DVD. But this high def presentation from Miramax stunned me with its overall quality. The film is heavy on darkly lit scenes, which now look better and more detailed than ever. Grain does find its way into the frame during a few scenes, none of which are the least bit distracting. The film’s unconventional color scheme also looks better than ever.
The DTS HD mix serves this dialogue driven film terrifically well. Every spoken word is delivered through the channels with astounding clarity, especially during the violent, heated exchanges. The highlight is the unique and stirring music score from Daniel Lanois, which sounds more effective than it has on any previous format. Pretty much the best possible sound presentation a film like this could ever hope for.
Every single one of the fantastic extras from the Collector’s Edition DVD release has been brought over to this Miramax Blu-ray. We have a commentary with Billy Bob Thornton, which is as informative as one would expect. Also included are three outstanding documentaries/featurettes; “Mr. Thornton Goes To Hollywood”, which runs well over an hour, is a biographical portrait of Thornton’s life, from his upbringing right up to the moment he struck fame. Next, there’s “Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton”, which runs around 45 minutes and features interviews with the likes of Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. Thirdly, there’s a Roundtable Discussion, which also runs well over an hour and features Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and Producer David Bushell. And the extras don’t end there, as there is also “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall”, as well as “A Conversation with Robert Duvall” and “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and composer Daniel Lanois” .
Rounding out the amazing list of features is “The Return Of Karl”, which features Thornton fully in character while on the set of another film, three brief “On the Set” pieces; “Billy Bob At Work”, “Doyle's Band: The Johnsons”, “Doyle Gets Pummeled”, and finally, “Doyle's Dead”, a short piece with and an introduction by Thornton.
Sling Blade remains a true cinematic treasure 13 years down the road. One of the greatest independent film achievements of the 90s looks better than it ever has on Blu-ray. If, for some reason, you haven’t yet seen this film, and have Blu-ray access, there hasn’t been a better time to experience this amazing piece of work.