This Memorial Day weekend, most of America was out barbecuing, our bizarre way of honoring the nation’s defenders. Always determined to step to the beat of my own drum, I chose my own way of memorializing: by watching movies about serial killing retards.
Sling Blade opens with the graphic and heart wrenching description of a murder by the man who committed it, Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton). Raised by abusive, neglectful parents Karl lived until the age of twelve in a woodshed behind his family’s house. It was then that he murdered his mother and her lover, a boy who was also one of his childhood tormenters. His weapon of choice was a sling blade, some people call it a Kaiser blade and in a fit of rage he used it to nearly sever the head of his mother and her adulterous lover. Now, whether a product of defective birth or years of abuse Karl is damaged, slow-witted, and we can only assume somewhat retarded. Some people call it mentally handicapped but I call it retarded.
Karl has lived for decades since the slayings in an institution for the criminally insane and we meet him on the day of his release. They tell him he’s cured, and send him unprotected out into a world where he has neither family nor friends. Karl quickly endears himself to the people of the small town where he ends up. For some reason folks find his series of guttural grunts and periods of long, extended silences charming. There’s no denying the character’s appeal as he slinks through the film like a freshly beaten dog, wise in his own simple innocent way. Actually, perhaps that’s what really makes Karl so endearing, there’s a basic innocence to him in spite of that pesky psychotic killing incident back in his childhood.
Karl’s aw shucks personality and deranged upbringing make it easy to excuse his childhood executioning, and Billy Bob makes quick work of any hesitation you might have in rooting for the character. Slightly less acceptable perhaps is the behavior of some of the characters around him. We might forgive him for what he’s done, but that doesn’t mean we’d want to risk him hanging out with our children without some firm evidence of his rehabilitation. Linda (Natalie Canderay) on the other hand, doesn’t seem to mind when this strange, hulking, mentally deficient fellow befriends her young son Frank (Lucas Black). In fact, she puts him up in her garage. Her abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) objects, and while you hate to root for the movie asshole, the guy seems to be the only one in the movie with any common sense.
Doyle ends up serving as a foil for Karl; he’s the thing that ends up going wrong to throw a monkey wrench into Karl’s otherwise perfectly developing life. What’s a movie without a little conflict? We watch Karl’s personality grow as Billy Bob slowly brings the character out of his shell while in the background looms Doyle, a ticking time bomb likely to end up at any moment drunk and shirtless on the latest episode of “Cops”.
Also noteworthy is John Ritter as Linda’s gay best friend. He’s a kind and caring guy, who doesn’t seem capable of protecting Linda and Frank because he’s gay and of course since “those people” are sissies gay guys can’t fight. Hey, what do you expect, this is a movie written, directed, and starring Hollywood’s pre-emanate redneck. Enjoy the stereotypes.
Oddly enough, the character of Karl is the only player not entrenched firmly in some sort of stereotype. Thornton’s performance lifts him above the realm of normal, mumbling, bumbling retarded characters played by people like Sean Penn into something a little more engaging. Though Karl occasionally borders on the cartoonish, there’s a unique honesty to the character that’s striking. He’s almost like a mentally diminutive Yoda, filled with basic, common sense wisdom that flows naturally out of Thornton’s script in between bites of mustard covered biscuits, Karl’s favorite snack.
This is hardly one of the best films of the nineties, but if in the past you’ve missed it Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial debut is worth a visit. If nothing else it’s significant as a big part of the massive new Indie movement in the nineties and as the film that launched Billy Bob into our collective pop culture laps. It may take a little doing to ignore the film’s grating and unpredictable soundtrack, but don’t dismiss it out of hand as yet another celebrity plays mentally handicapped for awards. Sling Blade makes something interesting out of that tired Oscar fodder genre and Thornton shows promise as both a writer and a director that he’s never properly explored since. Of course I might not have either, were I to suddenly find Angelina Jolie in my bed. The man’s been busy.
I don’t know if it’s the departure of the Weinsteins or some sort of money-making desperation on Disney’s part, but suddenly all of Miramax’s old Indies are getting the royal treatment. In this case it’s a Miramax Collector’s Series Edition of Sling Blade, but it might be better renamed Sling Blade: The Billy Bob Thornton Is Better Than Jesus Edition. Thornton is everywhere on this disc, it’s a love letter to him more than an ode to the movie. Clearly he had some heavy involvement in putting together this DVD, and he’s used his influence to pack every single minute of it with documentaries, information, interviews, and ass kissing dedicated to him, King Billy Bob. I used to respect the guy as someone working in the Hollywood but refusing to himself give in to going Hollywood. I was wrong. There’s no one on the Earth more Hollywood than Billy Bob Thornton. He’s mister celebrity, the disc drips with ego and deluded, self-congratulatory grandstanding. If this set’s extra features are to be believed, Sling Blade is clearly the greatest movie ever made. They come out and say it actually. Repeatedly Sling Blade is referred to most important movie in existence, and apparently the po-dunk dimwit Karl the most amazing character ever written. Reality check needed. Billy Bob isn’t redneck Jesus. That’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Look, I dig it when filmmakers are proud of, in love with, and excited about their own work. However, that doesn’t mean they should completely lose touch with reality. If Francis Ford Coppola wants to interview people and have them declare The Godfather the greatest movie ever made, then I’d be fine with that. I may not agree with it, but at least there’s some sort of consensus out there that might back him up on it. If Orson Welles wants to drag his tubby body out of the grave to appear on a commentary track for Citizen Kane and accept accolades declaring him the most important filmmaker of all time, then I could live with that as well. I may not agree, but at least the claim isn’t completely ridiculous. But for a movie about a mental cripple chopping people up with a Kaiser blade to so cavalierly stuff its DVD documentaries with bearded sycophants and washed up country singers turned actor wildly overrating the movie and pushing its director up into Martin Scorsese stratosphere is frankly pretty damn insulting. Not just to Scorsese, but to their fans and viewers intelligence. If you think this is some sort of important movie, if you think Billy Bob is the world’s foremost film genius, if you think Lucas Black is now one of America’s hottest young actors, or if you think Sling Blade contains the finest cast ever assembled, you hate movies and shouldn’t be allowed to see them. That goes double for you Dwight Yoakam. You’ve already done the job, he’s already paid you. You can get your lips off his ass. You’re a formerly successful musician, you don’t need this. At least the fat bearded guy from TV’s “Step-by-Step” has an excuse; after all there are only so many roles out there for bloated bikers.
I realize I should be spending more time here describing what’s actually included on this disc, but I can’t get past the sheer pomposity of it. If you can, you’ll find a heavily loaded release. You may want to vomit from being forced to wade through all this ego, but at least there’s a lot there to vomit from. The first disc of this two disc set contains, obviously, the feature film as well as a commentary track with writer/director/actor Billy Bob Thornton. Disc two is where the fluffing begins. There’s more here than you’ll ever want to know about the movie, even sections declaring the greatness of the movie’s horrible soundtrack. I mean, they’ve included a live performance from the composer (while Billy Bob stares at him creepily in the background) so that you can be forced to hear his hideous music all over again. That’s detail.
There’s absolutely no shortage of detail on this disc, they’ve loaded it up, given you everything there is to give and a whole lot more. It’s a love letter from Billy Bob Thornton to himself, interview after interview from deluded actor who thinks they’ve just finished making their generation’s Gone With the Wind, documentary after documentary declaring Billy Bob the world’s foremost authority on being flat out awesome. It’ll make you sick. If you liked the movie before you watch disc two, you’ll hate it and wish nothing but bad things on it afterwards.
The problem for me is how do I rate it? I can’t fault this disc for skimping. Miramax has absolutely gone above and beyond with this release. In fact, they’ve gone too far. This is a release strictly for people who think of Billy Bob as their messiah… I just can’t get myself to praise it for that. Look, kudos to Miramax for putting so much detailed time and effort into this release, for making sure it’s really worthy of the “Collector’s” moniker. With hours of quality extras it really is. It isn’t Miramax’s fault that the people involved in the film are all a bunch of deluded sycophants. This is a fantastically well done release; it’s just that most of the people involved in this movie are self-important turds. They’re here, in all their ego-driven glory.