Monday, 23 January 2012

Sling Blade (1996)

Dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam, Natalie Canerday

Is it possible to admire a film but be left extremely uncomfortable about it? Because that is how Sling Blade left me feeling.

For starters, it is one man’s film: Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton wrote the script, directed the movie, and put in a stellar performance as Karl Childers. Karl is a man with learning difficulties newly released from the state hospital. As a boy he had witnessed what he took to be a sexual assault upon his abusive mother. Taking a long-handled brush-clearer called a Kaiser blade (“Some folks call it a sling blade”, he explains; “I call it a Kaiser blade”) he had struck the man, killing him; realising that his mother was a willing participant he had then killed her too. Thornton attempts to capture this character through awkward mannerisms and facial expressions, vocal tics and a hesitancy when dealing with people (he stands on the Wheatleys’ porch without knocking, and sits passively while Doyle is thrown out after his party). He does a good job. As someone who has spent a lot of time around people with learning difficulties I especially thought that one of the truest aspects was habitual use of certain stock phrases. He uses the Kaiser blade phrase above twice, and also says twice of the Bible that he “can’t understand all of it, but I reckon I understood a good deal of it”. He also re-uses phrases or jokes he has heard others say, hurting Vaughan (John Ritter) when he describes him as “not funny ‘ha-ha’, funny queer”. A few characteristics are extraneous however – does Karl really have to walk around the entire time with his trousers at half-mast?

Karl (an almost unrecognisable Billy Bob Thornton) ponders
the big question - should he have mustard on his potaters?

But the fact of the matter is that Karl has not been prepared for the outside world. He has been institutionalised by his incarceration. Upon his release he attempts to return to hospital, saying that he doesn’t much care for being a free man. He is turned away. No preparation is made for what he will do once he is released; that is not the hospital’s responsibility. All that matters to them is that they consider him to be ‘well’. As a child he was kept in a shed by his parents; after he killed his mother he was incarcerated in a mental hospital. Karl had never had any greater perspective than the four walls around him. When asked to describe the outside world all he can say is that it is “too big”. He is confronted with choices and free will where he has never had them before. Faced with the entire range of choices at the Frostee Cream Karl only wants “French fried potaters”. French fries, biscuits, and maybe a little mustard – these are as far as his expressed desires go. But he learns the meaning of choice. When he killed his mother it was an instinctive reaction; when he kills Doyle it was because he chose to do it and planned to do it, making sure that those he cared about were out of the way first. He kills Doyle because he sees it as the best way to protect the people who, in turn, care for him.

It upset me that Karl ends up once again back in hospital. Having killed once he eventually kills again. The story has the element of a Shakespearean tragedy. I was hoping that Karl would be able to rehabilitate into society thanks to the charity shown him. The hospital administrator Jerry Woolridge at the hospital (James Hampton) gives Karl a room for the night and fixes him up with a job; Bill Cox (Rick Dial) employs him even knowing his history; local boy Frank (Lucas Black) befriends Karl, and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) lets him stay in her garage; Vaughan tries to set him up on a date. The latter three all attend his baptism. With Sling Blade’s languid pacing this would not have made a very enthralling film. I understand that dramatic necessity. Its implications for the treatment of other people with learning difficulties are unpleasant however – maybe they can never change their spots. When asked if he would ever kill again Karl only says that he doesn’t reckon that he has any reason to. When he is given a reason, he once again kills.

But this is maybe not an inherent part of Karl; more likely it is an inherent part of the world. A child trapped in a man’s body, he is continually presented with ‘adult themes and situations’. Mostly these revolve around Linda’s no-good boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Doyle is rude, prejudiced, dominating, drunken and inconsiderate. Due to his presence a lot of strong phrases get used: ‘I hate him’, ‘I’ll kill you’. How is a simple mind meant to process these ideas without any context? From the first it looks as though Karl’s murder of Doyle is pre-ordained. It is simply his fate to do so.

And people recognise this. My most uncomfortable thought is that people not only see this coming, but they plan for it. We can maybe say that Frank might not realise the implications of Karl leaving him his books and explaining that “Doesn’t matter where I was to be. We’ll always be friends”, but surely Vaughan must realise what is going to occur when Karl asks him to collect the Wheatleys and have them stay the night at his, leaving his earnings for them. Okay, Doyle, while drunk, does threaten to kill Linda should she leave him, but the first person to talk about killing is Frank, of Doyle. “I’d like to kill that sonofabitch. I hate him”, he says. “My daddy would kill him if he were still here and somebody was mean to mama”. And this is worse because Frank is looking for a proper father figure, either in Vaughan or in Karl. Karl remembers his own father (Robert Duvall, for the third time in four weeks) and how he mistreated him and caused the death of his brother. Karl wants to protect Frank like he was unable to protect his own brother. But Doyle never shows the out-and-out malice that Karl's parents seemed to. He only shoves Linda once she has shoved him first. When Frank starts throwing bottles at him, Doyle cowers on the floor. When Karl arrives to kill him, Doyle is seemingly resigned to his fate. From this reading Karl is used as a patsy to remove someone who is always talked up as being meaner than he actually is. Noticeably we see no sign that Frank comes to visit his friend in the hospital.

Maybe I am just over-analysing this. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is quite convincing, and it is painful to see him slide into committing an action which he knows is wrong. It is even more painful if you start to suspect that possibly he is being set up to do this by those he cares for and trusts. My personal reaction to the film was that I’d much rather never think of it again.

What have I learnt about Arkansas?
The state mental health services are distinctly lacking. There is no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style abuse, but there is a lack of care about what happens to its patients once they qualify for release. There is no formal support there. However, there is human charity out there, as shown by Jerry Wooldridge, the Wheatleys and Bill Cox. Yet even Karl’s friends refer to him as being “retarded”. And they are not being intentionally rude most of the time – that is the only way they can describe his situation. As a minority he is always going to stand out and attract comments – much as Vaughan does for being gay in a small town.

Can we go there?
As far as I can tell, Karl’s hometown of Millsburg, Arkansas, does not exist. Sling Blade was filmed in Arkansas though, in Benton, Saline County, 24 miles south of Little Rock on Interstate 30. The Benton Chamber of Commerce have produced a leaflet identifying the film’s locations. Vaughan and Karl have lunch at Gary’s Whopper Burger. Karl plays American football with Frank at the C. W. Lewis Stadium belonging to Benton High School. The Wheatley’s house is indeed “a lil’ ol’ white house on the corner of Vine Street and some other street”. The ‘other street’ is Main Street, and the house number is 522. And the state mental hospital scenes were shot at the Arkansas Health Center (formerly the Benton Farm Colony of the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases). Bill’s lawnmower repair shop has been torn down to make way for a bank however. I have to admit though, I’m not entirely sure why one would want to be hunting out these locations; small town Arkansas certainly doesn’t seem particularly picturesque.

Overall Rating: 3/5


  1. Your thoughts on the movie are about as informative about your thoughts on small town Arkansas. Billy Bob Thornton chose the location because Arkansas (and Saline County in particular) was his birth place. It was perfect for use in the film. We are still a small town and care greatly about our history which stretches back much further than the movie. Keep in mind that we are part of civil war history and have rare treasures here. You'd be lucky to call this home but I guess you city folks just get to miss out on what we small town folks call perfect.

  2. I love small towns, and wish I could visit...