Sling Blade (1996)

D: Billy Bob Thornton
S: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam

Slow-moving but absorbing drama expanded from a short film (by George Hickenlooper) which, amazingly, never feels padded despite a two hour plus running time; a tour de force from Billy Bob Thornton, who doubles as star and director. He plays a mentally retarded man released from care after twenty years who befriends a young boy (Lucas Black) and becomes involved in a domestic drama which threatens to trigger the homicidal impulse which landed him in the institution in the first place. As star, Thornton is spellbinding. His performance is as controlled as Dustin Hoffman's in Rain Man, but less sentimental, and he gives the character a distinctive vocal and physical presence which indelibly impresses itself in the memory even if the details of the story become vague. As director, he manages to establish and maintain a particular and specific tone which compensates for some weaknesses in the narrative.

Sling Blade is a predictable, parabalistic tale which raises various moral questions about tolerance, charity, physical and emotional abuse, and friendship. Dramatically, much of it centres on secondary characters and their interrelationships, from widow and mother Natalie Canerday's troubles with abusive boyfriend Dwight Yoakam to gay supermarket manager John Ritter's attempts to stand up for his right to be treated equally. Thornton's character crosses paths with these and other various individuals, acting, as is often the case in films of this type, as a kind of idiot savant, a simpleton who is wiser than all around him. This is a contrivance, of course, and the film can't overcome this central difficulty, but it has been written and directed with such delicacy that it hardly seems to matter. The film also rises to a very obvious conclusion which nonetheless proves effective despite its inevitability because of Thornton's directorial choices.

Composed with a succession of medium and close-up shots of relatively even length shot on location in Arkansas, the film's visual rhythm is a largely successful attempt to match form to content. The pace is as deliberate as the speech patterns of its central character and builds inexorably to a climax which is equally subdued if dramatically cathartic. The landscape itself seems to fit in with this approach. It is as if physical space moulds itself to the portrayal of character and the evocation of his simple, subjective point of view. This allows Thornton to justify the resolution, which hinges on a moral ponderable which some viewers may find difficult to accept. Its notion of justice is of an otherworldly, old-Testament type in which the moral imperative exceeds contemporary conventions. The focus on a character whose mental state makes him an outsider in every way therefore makes it all the more inevitable, and, in a sense, more convenient that despite any considerations of another's point of view, he acts as he must. The film deftly sidesteps the ethical questions raised by this call to arms in the service of the greater good, and though a brief coda suggests that our hero has acted not only in the name of good, but has chosen to do so from a relatively conventional moral standpoint, it justifies aggression against the aggressor.

In the all-important role of the abusive boyfriend, country music singer Dwight Yoakam is impressive. Despite the arguably simplistic (natch) justice doled out upon him, there are ambiguities in his relationship with Canerday which he plays upon quite well. Irredeemable as he may be, his villainy is altogether human, rooted in weaknesses rather than some abstract notion of 'evil'. Support from Canerday, Black, and Ritter is equally solid, and there's a lovely little role for J.T. Walsh as a sexual pervert who relishes in telling stories of his depravity to Thornton at the institute. These performances all tend towards underplay, which is in keeping with the style of the film. It also further reinforces Thornton's 'distance' and distinctiveness from the others. Again, this may be a convenient contrivance, but it is effective. It is a consistently fascinating film, not because of its complexity, but because its pared-down style is so beautifully judged to work in conjunction with the central characterisation that it is difficult to take your eyes off the screen. How well it functions as morality play is another question, and one best left to an actual viewing to resolve.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.