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A Rube of One's Own

Sling Blade
Mission on Earth: Saintly redeemer Billy Bob Thornton listens sympathetically to J.T. Walsh in "Sling Blade."

'Sling Blade' wants to be a morally uplifting freak show

By Richard von Busack

HAVING MADE a bad impression on his mother's mind with a machete (the kind that Southerners call a "sling blade"), 12-year-old Karl (Billy Bob Thornton, who also directed and wrote the screenplay) was sentenced to a psychiatric prison for the criminally insane. Sling Blade starts with Karl's release after 25 years in the institution.

For more than two hours, Thornton doesn't break character. Smiling the famous smile of the baby that has gas, Karl sports a shirt buttoned to the neck and high-waisted pants. The crooked neck, the underslung jaw, the squint and the balding head add to the impression of a terrapin wrapped in prison denim. Impervious to all the crosscurrents in the movie, it's a performance that won't be budged by anyone else in the cast.

Thornton's version of a Southern gothic story is a mission of redemption, like Forrest Gump's embassy to this earth from heaven. Karl's saintly, stolid presence is the only thing that can redeem a troubled family.

Karl, who is a savant when it comes to repairing small engines, easily lands a job with a gentle, approving employer. He begins a friendship with 12-year-old Frank (Lucas Black), who likes the way Karl talks (in a croaking Howlin' Wolf/Bob Dole bass punctuated with compulsive grunts). The small Southern town is used to eccentrics and has long since forgotten Karl's crime, so it's no surprise that Frank's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), even lets Karl move into the family garage. Trouble brews, however, when Linda's boyfriend, Doyle (country singer Dwight Yoakam), begins showing every sign of becoming the boy's stepfather.

A construction worker with delusions of rock-music grandeur, Doyle is a drunk, narcissistic sadist. He's already goaded Frank into a rage and is ready to drive away Linda's gay best friend, Vaughn (John Ritter), and end the friendship between Karl and Frank--to make the boy less of a "pussy."

As the villain among so many gentle folk, Yoakam shines, and he has the best trick (everyone has one trick each) of apologizing snakily after every misdeed. This movie could have used a little more of his calculated ruthlessness.

I'm unconvinced Sling Blade was made with the best intentions, mostly because of the remote long shots that encourage gawking. The proscenium arch is firmly in place here. We also have the honorary presence of cult director Jim Jarmusch (in a visually noisy cameo as a fast-food worker with a chafing paper hat), combined with the Jarmuschian signature--scenes that hold in place so long that the actors look stupid.

The strange hairstyle Vaughn adopts--a "zippy," a puff of hair on top of a noticeably tapered head--confirms my suspicions that the movie was meant as a sort of morally uplifting freak show. I've never been to one, but I've heard that barkers always stress the humanity of the what-is-it? and the two-faced man, to make you feel better about staring.

Thornton's cold camerawork, combined with--it was inevitable--Karl's newfound articulateness (describing Frank, he says, "This boy lives in his own heart"), slows the languid movie's already tedious pace. Sling Blade has pauses for weeping--stop and cry here. It's just like those plaques at Disneyland that tell you a good snapshot can be taken on this spot.

Sling Blade (R; 136 min.), directed and written by Billy Bob Thornton, photographed by Barry Markowitz and starring Thornton, Natalie Canerday and Dwight Yoakam.

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From the February 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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