That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

Sling Blade

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 4:33 pm—Film

Sling Blade (USA 1996, Drama), Writer/Director: Billy Bob Thornton

Sling Blade is easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen. It’s made me completely high on the artfulness of filmmaking, and all the facets it includes—script, score, acting, direction, cinematography, sound and set design… When everything comes together, film has the potential to be completely riveting. And Sling Blade definitely delivers on that promise.

I am in awe of Billy Bob Thornton, who not only starred in and directed the film, but also took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Sling Blade is based on his short screenplay, Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade). He brings the elements of filmmaking together in such a distinct and effective way that I’m left utterly inspired and quite speechless. So it’s a good thing for keyboards.

Sling Blade opens as Karl Childers (Thornton) is about to be released from a mental hospital, having spent several decades imprisoned for murdering his mother and her boyfriend at the age of 12. As he explains, in his lurching and raspy way, he killed them with a sling blade (“Some folks call it a kaiser blade; I call it a sling blade.”) because he caught them in the act and thought they were doing wrong. He intended only to kill the man, whom he assumed was assaulting his married mother; when he realized she was willingly committing adultery, he killed her too.

But Karl is no longer deemed a threat to society because, as he says, he sees no reason to kill anyone else. He returns to his rural Arkansas hometown and soon befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black). Frank’s mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites Karl to move in with them. And then Karl meets Linda’s abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), and Karl begins to see that there may be a reason to kill someone else after all.

The film’s tagline is: “A simple man. A difficult choice.” But Karl is anything but simple. Sure, when asked what he’s thinking after sitting in what appears to be ponderous thought, he replies that he was wondering whether to bring French fried taters home with him. But he’s also clearly spent a lot of time considering what separates right from wrong. He’s looked to the bible (whose words his parents often distorted to their advantage as they raised him), and to those around him, and he’s weighed his past decisions. In the end, he comes up with some answers of his own.

From the outset, Sling Blade called to mind distinct components of two other excellent films: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and the Cohen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. In its opening scene, Sling Blade drags out the sound of a chair being pulled across the floor as one of Karl’s inmates approaches him. In letting the camera linger on the two men, and holding the scraping sound far longer than you would expect, Thornton immediately sets the tone for the tension that plays out through most of the film. You wonder what sinister acts the inmate has in mind. If any. But that’s the point—you never know.

The scene reminded me of the long and eerily calm opening shot in A History of Violence, which very effectively establishes a feeling of calm before the storm. Except with Sling Blade, that feeling is maintained throughout the entire film. We don’t even have to see the violence. Thornton is confident to have the camera nestle in and let us visualize the violence to come without ever showing it. There’s a scene when Doyle outdoes himself, tearing into Frank and Linda in a drunken rage. The entire episode plays out in one long take, with Doyle and the others in the background, while Karl sits in the foreground listening as Doyle digs himself in deeper and deeper. The viewer is left to fill in what other directors might have addressed through fancy camera work or narration.

Sling Blade features many tableaux like that, where the characters are given space to interact without the interruption of cuts and close-ups. This isn’t just a default approach for Thornton; he knows to mix it up by varying the pace of the direction, editing and music (provided by the legendary Daniel Lanois) when it suits the story. It’s simply a way of letting the characters talk and the story unfold in a highly captivating manner. It works because the script is insightful and layered, and the actors are perfectly cast. Even Karl’s creepy inmate from the opening scene tells his tales in such a compelling way that his words become tangible, and all Thornton had to do was let his actor talk.

What reminded me of No Country for Old Men is the matter of fact way in which Karl seems to process death. The killer in No Country for Old Men (played by Javier Bardem) seems to represent the hand of fate, and there is an element of that in Sling Blade. Although with Karl, it seems more that he’s the hand of god. Yes, he’s a murderer. But it’s not clear that he’s in the wrong. He never acts out of a need for violence; he simply carries out the acts he believes to be right, whether because it’s what he was taught as a child, or what he came to decide on his own as an adult. (“Some folks call it murder …”)

Throughout Sling Blade, I found myself marveling at both the compelling and often daring stylistic choices, and the unabashed exploration of right versus wrong. Thornton’s approach to both is to lay it all on the line and let it play out before us, never rushing it, never forcing anything. The end result is a brilliant film that continues to roll in your mind long after the last frame.

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MR, I dedicate this post to you. Thank you for recommending Sling Blade (I’ll have to get to the others on your list), and thank you for letting me know you’re out there reading all my posts. I’ll never stop writing now.

2 Responses

  1. mommyblogger

    I just wanted to say thanks as a mother who blogs, posts like these keep me occupied while the kids are asleep!

    Oh, baby is waking up, I will read more next time!

  2. amanda

    thanks so much for checking in!

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