With pure and innocent good characters and a vile antagonist displaying over the top cruelty and prejudice, Sling Blade could have fallen into the forgettable bin of melodrama, a brand of movie that played better during the silent era. But along the way Billy Bob Thornton peopled his Oscar winning screenplay with some of the most unique characters of the decade and added humane doses of small town Southern dialogue for warmth. The crossover appeal of the independent film to mainstream audiences had many Americans asking for biscuits and french-fried potatoes with mustard in low gravelly Karl Childers voice tones, m-hmmmm.
Much of the audience appeal relies on the film's simplicity. College degrees or film school classes are not required to appreciate the story. As Thornton reflects,
“Well, I think it's a morality tale. In a lot of ways, the theme of the movie, I think, is selling some part of yourself in order to save someone else. I mean, that's a very simplistic way to put it, I guess, but it's really about love between outcast kinds of people, and the compassion—the love—they have for each other.”
Sentenced to the mental institution at the age of twelve after hacking his mother and her lover with a Kaiser blade, Karl is no Norman Bates. Diagnosed mentally retarded, Karl is considered a good listener by some while others believe he's a deep thinker. He's certainly great fixing small engines, and his small personal library (carpentry books, the Bible, A Christmas Carol) adds obvious weight to theories about Karl serving as a Jesus symbol. Sharp-eyed viewers can spot other Jesus references, but carrying a carpenter's hammer just before getting baptized seals the deal.
Released from the mental hospital around the age of thirty (same age Jesus was when he began His mission), Karl returns to the small town he grew up in and instantly befriends 12-year old Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black). Before long the highly moral man-child moves into the shed in back of the Wheatley home, serving as Frank's substitute father and mentor. Other major positive influences in the Wheatley home is Frank's mother Linda (Natalie Canerday, who often plays great southern mothers like in October Sky) and her gay work supervisor Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter).
On the evil side is “assholish” Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), who constantly claims to be kidding when he puts down the other guys with comments about retards, fags, and wimpish kids. All the elements for melodrama are present, with Doyle looming around the Wheatley household, naïve Linda continually forgiving Doyle's sins, and Vaughan meekly treading eggshells in his presence. The eventual outcome is predictable; fortunately, Thornton elevates the script with a few surprises, humor, and poignancy.
For the most part Thornton refrains from preaching and remains within his simple minded character—the lone exception being a private comment to Vaughn about young Frank: “That boy lives inside his own heart. That's an awful big place to be.” Though quotable and memorable, it's a bolt from the blue given Karl's previous scenes. More typical and funny is a scene that recalls Peter Sellers' Being There persona, where Vaughn reveals his homosexuality to Karl and then queries the silent listener about his thoughts: “I was thinkin', I'm gonna take me some of these taters home with me.”
Despite Billy Bob's scene domination, the great surrounding ensemble cast adds the necessary human touches to make the film work. Cameos by Jim Jarmusch as the hamburger joint operator and Robert Duvall as Karl's father (a reprise of Boo Radley's shy reclusive character) are dead on, and Cristy Ward's take on dull witted Melinda is very sweet and honest. Budding romances between people like Karl and Melinda are likely to be as chaste and slow as their conversations about store pricing, aching feet, and blisters. Long time character actor J.T. Walsh effectively plays a small but significant part as a lascivious blabbermouth in the bookends of the film. The little cameo and supporting moments are as vital to Thornton's screenplay as the overall structure, which conforms to traditional format. The details supply the film with life.
After years of hacking around as a drummer/singer, taking small parts in television drama, and a significant role in the underviewed One False Move, Thornton makes his breakthrough in Sling Blade, a star vehicle perfectly designed for him. Without the traditional good looks of typical leading men, Thornton would have been destined to a career of character acting, type-cast into roles for villains and good ol' Southern boys and hicks, had he not created Karl.
Of course, anytime a role for a southern bad ass or retarded character comes around, Billy Bob remains on the short list of candidates, but this film establishes his bankable acting abilities and has allowed Thornton to take on more nuanced roles in films like Primary Colors, The Man Who Wasn't There, and Monster's Ball. He's a more down to earth Davy Crockett in 2003's Alamo than John Wayne ever could hope to be, but reckon none of this would have unfolded for Thornton without his portrayal of Karl in this morality tale, m-hmmmm.