In the most controversial scene in the equally scandalous Tropic Thunder, Australian actor turned black man Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) tries to explain to hack action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) why his performance as the mentally handicapped character Simple Jack failed to earn him any serious professional credence. “Everybody knows you never go full retard,” says the saucy Aussie, arguing that performers who cross the border from artificial into far too real become awards season liabilities. Truth, according to Lazarus, must always be tempered with a wink of and nod to the audience.
Billy Bob Thornton would probably have a bone to pick with said sentiment. For his Oscar nominated (and eventually winning) work in Sling Blade, he was 100% committed to making his slow-witted manchild Karl Childers a real, if rather bizarre, representation of a handicap gone horrifically wrong. It’s not just that this memorable man is a murderer. It’s that Karl contains so many facets of innocence and naiveté that we wonder how he ever came to kill. The answer is part of this movie’s masterful narrative drive and personality detail.
Having been locked up in the State Institution for almost two decades, Karl is deemed to no longer represent a danger to himself or others. While facility director Jerry Woolridge would like nothing more than to let him stay, the government deems otherwise. Returning to his hometown, Karl meets up with a young boy named Frank Wheatley. He lives with his mother Linda and her abusive boyfriend, Doyle. After initially taking up residence in the back of the machine shop where he works fixing appliances and motors, Karl is invited to stay with the Wheatleys. There, he learns of Doyle hard-drinking destruction of the family. Fighting the urge to remedy the situation the same way he did several years before, Karl contains himself. But all it takes is one insensitive spark to set him off, and Doyle is, if anything, predicable with said fireworks.
Arriving out of nowhere to become the buzz of 1996, Sling Blade brought then mostly unknown actor/writer/director Billy Bob Thornton to mainstream prominence. His feature length treatment of a formerly short film project propelled him to the A-list of hyphenated talents, trumping almost all the work he had done for the decade before. From 1986’s Hunter’s Blood through Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, Thornton struggled. But his co-starring and co-scripting duties on Carl Franklin’s cult phenomenon One False Move proved that there was more to this musician turned thespian than genre schlock. By the time Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade was turned into a major motion picture, Thornton had Childers down pat. Allowing the rest of his cast to be as natural and organic as possible gave the unlikely hero of this post-modern Southern Gothic a chance to be as arc and allegorical as possible.
Indeed, one has to remember that Karl represents more than evil returning to the town of its source. He’s not just some brain damaged delinquent who’s unsure of his own sinister edge. As Thornton writes him, Karl is in complete control of his faculties. He’s just slow and insular, lost in the wounded, wicked world he creates inside himself. He knows right from wrong, but he also understands that, sometimes, morality plays no part in one’s personal duty. From the killing of his momma when he was a kid to the constant threat he appears to represent, Karl is karma, humanized and humbled.
We can see the how the horrid Doyle Hargraves becomes the latest target of his internal ethical dilemma. Karl just wants to protect new found friends Frank and Linda Wheatley. But this is one simpleton who sees beyond the basics. He realizes what someone like Doyle does to people. It’s not just that he brings out the worst - this is one angry, antisocial monster. It’s a revelatory move to make the former murderer the good guy in your faraway fairytale. Frank and Linda should be afraid of Karl, but his implied cruelty is nothing compared to the nastiness they already know. Thornton never turns his creation into something horrific. Instead, Karl becomes honor, the voice of violent reason in a situation otherwise structured on clichéd concepts of loyalty and flawed gender politics.
As an actor, Thornton is terrific. He never once falsifies who Karl is. From the voice pattern to the physicality of the man, this is someone we believe can and does exist - even within the surreal dynamic he seems to inhabit. Still, as the commentary track on the recently released Blu-ray version of the title reveals, Thornton was working on the character for years. It was kind of a catharsis for him, a way to totally get lost in a personality and then running with the foreign feeling identity. Lots of actors have done it before, with or without going “full retard”, but the truth is that Thornton’s turn remains more than great. It’s iconic, that celluloid rarity destined to live on long after he’s been forgotten as a part of film.
And his eye for supporting casts is equally clever. The late great John Ritter shines as a gay man quietly maintaining his dignity in a known den of bigotry, and Natalie Canerday is equally good as the mother who must balance the needs of her kid with the kind of support someone like Doyle can represent. Robert Duval’s devastating cameo as Karl’s impoverished dad and Lucas Black’s beautiful turn as Frank finds Thornton leading an undeniably talented group of performers. But it’s Dwight Yoakum who’s the real visceral epiphany here. The honky-tonk hero, a country icon indebted to the good time vibe of Buck Owens and the streets of Bakersfield, he’s the dictionary definition of a villain. Doyle is not just a man who answers issues with the back of his hand. He’s someone who doesn’t care that this is all he’s capable of. Call it a power play or a coward’s way out, but he’s that undeniable force of fear that everyone has to contend with - everyone except Karl, that is.
With Thornton’s keen eye and Daniel Lanois’ laconic musical score, Sling Blade provides a level of dread and anticipatory suspense into what is already a classic character study. Indeed, this is one of the few multi-genre successes, working well within the categories of drama, comedy, thriller, and mystery. It’s an ensemble where one man is clearly the main focus, a tour de force where everyone gets to share in the critical praise. Thornton would go on to a rollercoaster career in Hollywood, courting success and scandal as only the truly gifted and incorrigible can. No one can take away what he did with Sling Blade. In fact, he can make a million Armageddons and a bunch of Bad News Bears and still not tarnish this terrific film. Whether or not it takes mental deficiencies too far, one thing’s for certain - Thornton triumphs in an arena where few of his colleagues have excelled. Sling Blade is the exception that defies the rule.