Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sling Blade (1996)

Director: Billy Bob Thornton                            Writer: Billy Bob Thornton
Film Score: Daniel Lanois                               Cinematography: Barry Markowitz
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam and James Hampton

For all of the popularity that this film has engendered over the years, it’s fairly underwhelming. Based on a short film by Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade is the story of a mentally disabled man who has spent twenty-five years in a mental institution for killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve. The screenplay evolved from a black and white short that Thornton had directed two years earlier entitled Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. In it he is interviewed by reporter Molly Ringwald and tells her the story of how he committed the murders. In that film he plays a much more menacing character who, ironically, has managed to elicit a good deal of sympathy from Ringwald’s character by the end. In the full-length version of the film Thornton seems a lot more benign and is released from the mental hospital once he has finished with his treatment and sentence. He goes back to his hometown and when he winds up in front of the Laundromat he helps the young Lucas Black take his family’s clothes home.

With nowhere else to go, Thornton heads back to the hospital to tell the doctor, James Hampton, that he wants to stay at the hospital. So Hampton takes Thornton home with him that night and the next day drives him back to the small Southern town he grew up in, this time getting him a job doing small engine repair at a fix-it shop. After he’s settled in for a few days Thornton goes over to Black’s house, and then the two of them go over to meet his mother, Natalie Canerday, where she works at the dollar store. There they also meet the store manager, John Ritter, a gay man who obviously has trouble fitting in. Because Black has lost his father and likes him so much, Thornton accepts the offer of his mother to live in their garage. The only problem comes in the form of Dwight Yoakam, an abusive redneck who hates Black and Ritter and now Thornton, and makes everyone’s life miserable. While Thornton’s violent episode in his childhood is well behind him, the trajectory of the film seems fairly obvious about halfway through.

In addition to starring in the film, Billy Bob Thornton also wrote and directed, and the film suffers for it. It’s an unadorned character study and the simplistic nature of the plot, while interesting in certain respects, is so objective that it never really grabs hold of the viewer the way that it had the potential to do. Thornton’s character, as written, is also wildly inconsistent. At times he appears to be unaware of anything going on around him, while at other times he seems fully engaged. In a discussion with Ritter over lunch, for example, Thornton has no other thought in his head than his French fries and mustard, though later he will have some incredibly insightful moments with Black that seem completely out of character and put there only to justify the resolution of the film. The direction is also maddening at times. The only real close ups in the film are of Thornton himself, when the scenes at Black’s house cry out for close ups of Black and Canerday as well as Yoakam. But instead there are nothing but static medium shots that keep the entire film at a distance from the viewer.

The one thing the film does have going for it is the cast. The story opens in the day room of the mental institution with the late, great J.T. Walsh as a serial killer who loves nothing better than to regale the taciturn Thornton with exploits of his murders. Lucas Black is the perfect young Southern boy, with a purity and innocence that make him the real star of the film. James Hampton, more familiar as a television actor, acquits himself well in a subdued performance, while Robert Duvall was induced to make a cameo appearance as Thornton’s father with only a couple of lines of dialogue. Dwight Yoakam’s role is well written because of the lack of overt physical violence that leaves him with a shred of humanity. Thornton plays an enigma, a mentally disengaged man who has been institutionalized most of his life and yet still has the ability to love. The performance is unquestionably a good one, but because the rest of the film is so weak it gets lost. Thornton was nominated for an Oscar for his performance and, inexplicably, won the Academy Award for his screenplay. Perhaps it simply hasn’t aged well, but I found Sling Blade to be an interesting film that lacks a lot of the power fans still give it credit for.

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