As Karl, the stunted hillbilly protagonist of Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton wears his shirt buttoned up to his Adam’s apple, his hair buzz-shaved on both sides, and his lower lip folded over the top one — a smiling grimace of befuddlement. When he speaks, it’s in a thick, drawling grunt, the words emerging with painful deliberation, as if his brain had to lift weights to form the simplest thoughts. ”Ah like them French-fried potat-ers,” he’ll say, following it up with a quick, throaty ”Mm-hmmm,” as if it were up to him to agree with himself.
When Karl was 11, he stumbled upon his mother and her boyfriend having sex and killed both of them with a scythe-like ”sling blade.” Now he is being released from the mental hospital where he has spent 25 years. A nearly middle-aged man in high-water pants, he has the mind — and soul — of a child, with little awareness of anything that isn’t directly in front of him. He doesn’t have the capacity to lie; he speaks only when spoken to and reacts by broadcasting whatever’s in his head. As a character, Karl has a surface similarity to Forrest Gump, and he may remind you, as well, of the mentally arrested holy innocents in Rain Man, Being There, or The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser. Yet Karl is also a vastly original creation, a man so complete in his stupidity that we find ourselves hanging on his every word to divine what he feels. Thornton isn’t just the star of Sling Blade. He wrote and directed it as well, and it’s a beautiful contraption of a movie, a gothic backwoods fable that uses its naive yet murderous hero to walk a fine line between sentimentality and dread.
Returning to his Arkansas hometown, Karl, a simpleton savant (he has a knack for fixing broken machines), gets a job working in a garage and finds a best friend in Frank (Lucas Black), a cute, scowling kid in overalls. Frank takes Karl home to live with him and his mother (Natalie Canerday), and as soon as we meet Mom’s boyfriend, a white-trash drunk named Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), we can tell in our bones what’s going to happen. Thornton, a veteran actor who cowrote and costarred in 1992’s One False Move, paces Sling Blade so that it moves to Karl’s lumbering rhythms. Thornton knows how to spin drama around a hero of no awareness by building in frissons of comedy and suspense; the more we see the world as Karl does, the more his dumb-yokel plainness seems a form of grace. Yoakam, the country singer, gives a shattering performance, lending Doyle the redneck varmint authentic shades of self-loathing and cowardice. The very title of Sling Blade hangs over the movie like a threat, yet Thornton, the rare filmmaker who understands the South (he’s an Arkansas native), gets deep inside the region’s biblical undercurrents of brotherhood and retribution. The film haunts us with the knowledge that for Karl, gentleness and violence don’t just coexist — they spring from the very same place. A-