Billy Bob Thornton suffers from that ailment that afflicts great actors when they’re doing pictures they don’t really care that much about. His stock character has become the foul-mouthed, befuddled loser from One False Move (1992) and Waking Up in Reno (2002) and Daddy and Them(2001) and Bad Santa(2003). It’s funny (nobody delivers the word “fuck” funnier than Billy Bob), but that persona is such a monumental distance from the nuance and range of Thornton’s performances in Levity (2003), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), or Monster’s Ball (2001), that they might as well be the work of a different actor entirely. Dr. Thornton and Mr. Billy Bob.
In case anyone has forgotten just how potent a force Arkansas’s second most famous son can be, along comes the Tenth Anniversary Director’s Cut of Sling Blade, one of the 10 best films to come out of the 1990s, and it’s all Billy Bob. He adapted it from his own short play (and won an Oscar), acted in it (and was nominated for another Oscar), and directed it. But don’t call him an auteur. As with most subjects, Billy Bob has some choice four-letter words about that.
Karl Childers (Thornton), a hulking, developmentally challenged man-child, is released from the mental hospital where he has spent most of his life, after he killed his mother and her lover with a grass-cutting tool (“Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade. Mm”). He returns to his bucolic hometown of Millsburg, Arkansas, where he takes a job as a small-engine repairman and discovers a love for “French-fried potaters.” He also befriends a boy named Frank (Lucas Black), bringing Karl into the orbit of Frank’s household, including his widowed mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her drunken and abusive boyfriend Doyle Hargreaves (Dwight Yoakam in an amazing performance). Karl becomes a mute observer to the hell Doyle makes of Linda and Frank’s lives and takes a few lumps himself as the “humped-over retard” living in the garage.
But Karl is far from the uncomprehending lump Doyle supposes him to be. Neither is he one of those Hollywood star turns (Charly, Rain Man, Forrest Gump). Though at heart, he a gentle soul whose friendship with Frank is the bedrock of this film, Karl is never wholly sympathetic. Speaking in a truly grating voice punctuated by verbal tics, beset by agitated body twitches, hand-rubbing, and a constant 1000-yard stare, Karl is disconcerting. Only Frank is ever at ease in his presence, and Karl only comes to rest when he’s alone with the boy. At all other times, he’s slightly menacing, embodying the potential for sudden violence. We know that something awful is bound to happen at any time, and Billy Bob never gives our Spidey-sense a break.
As fully realized a character as Karl is, he is matched in his complexity by Doyle. In the hands of most directors, he would be a sadistic, crazy bastard. But Doyle is not simply villainous, he is recognizable. Determined to be the biggest fish in an infinitesimal pond, he moves into Linda’s house in order to establish his own little fiefdom and then regards the various facts of her life — her husband’s suicide, her friendship with her gay boss (a startling John Ritter), Frank’s 10-year-old fragility — as personal inconveniences for him.
Doyle is, in a sense, the Billy Bob character in its darkest aspect, flummoxed by minor obstacles and the inability of his limited brain to realize even the least of his ambitions. It is a serious crime to get on Doyle’s nerves, and unfortunately, it’s ridiculously easy to do that. In one of the film’s most horrifying sequences, Doyle invites his terrible garage band over to play, and when it’s suggested that they’d perhaps play better if they actually rehearsed once in a while, Doyle lashes out at the weakest person in the room, his wheelchair-bound guitarist Terence (singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, a real-life paraplegic), slamming him into a closed door. Doyle’s volatility is revealed as overcompensation for his own self-loathing. He’s a coward and he knows it, which makes him extremely dangerous to anyone physically weaker than himself, like Linda and Frank.
The film’s creeping sense of inevitability, the growing realization that tragedy is going to occur simply because none of these people can stop being themselves, that galvanizes it. The fact that it is visually beautiful, aided by an atmospheric score by Daniel Lanois, only heightens the despair and regret that spread through it like wild kudzu. Sling Blade is a piece of true Southern Gothic in the vein of Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and (yes, I’ll say it) William Faulkner.
The newly released Director’s Cut is the theatrical version with two or three bits reinserted, accompanied by a second disc of bonus features which may be called the Billy Bob Show. There’s a token making-of vignette, only a couple of minutes of video showing Billy Bob setting up shots, and two biographical pieces on Billy Bob, from his Arkansas roots through his struggles to survive as a neophyte actor and screenwriter in L.A. The rest of the disc consists of interviews — Billy Bob with Robert Duvall, Billy Bob with Daniel Lanois, and a long and very entertaining round table discussion among Billy Bob, Dwight Yoakam, actor-musician Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushell, where Thornton gets to engage in some of his trademark rants about music, poetry, the film industry, and Hollywood’s perception of the South. Simply put, if you like Mr. Billy Bob, the second disc is a lot of fun. But if you prefer Dr. Thornton, then watch the first disc again. Neither choice will be a waste of time.