Sling Blade

Sling Blade by Billy Bob Thornton deserves credit for the acting job of
its director and writer, who also plays the principal role, that of Karl
Childers, a mentally retarded man in his 30s released from a state
institution — the state seems to be Arkansas — after serving twenty
years for murdering his mother and her lover when he was a boy. The lover had
been a spoiled rich boy and the chief of those who used to torment and make fun
of Karl at the school yard for being strange and slow. He
red” when he saw this boy on top of
his mother and nearly cut his head off with a
“sling blade”
(“Some call it a sling blade, but I
call it a Kaiser blade,” he
says — it appears to be some kind of sickle). Thereupon, when his mother had
remonstrated with him and so revealed that she was complicit in this intimacy
with the other boy, he had killed her too. Now he says, on being released from the
hospital, “I
don’t reckon I got no reason to kill

That’s what he thinks. He returns to his home town but knows nobody there anymore except his father
(a cameo role for Robert Duvall), who
doesn’t want anything to do with him.
But he gets a job with a small engine repair shop (he is said to be
“a regular Eli Whitney with a
lawnmower” ) and meets and befriends a
small boy called Frankie (Lucas Black) whose father has committed suicide.
Frankie’s mother, Linda (Natalie
Canerday) works in a dime store (now called a dollar store) and indulges her
little boy, even to the point of allowing him to invite Karl to come and live in
their garage.

Linda is dating a frightful bully called Doyle Hargreaves (Dwight Yoakam) who
runs a construction company, is pals with the sheriff, and is fond of making
offensive comments to people and then telling them, with a smile, that he is
“just kidding
you.” He especially hates midgets,
antique furniture, homosexuals (like
Linda’s boss, Vaughan, played by John
Ritter) and
but he also hates Frankie. “Frankie
needs all the friends he can get,” he
a weak boy. His father taught him to be a
pussy.” Naturally his hatred is fully
reciprocated. Doyle has a tendency to become violent and abusive when he is
drunk, which is often, and he has threatened to kill Linda if she tries to break
off their relationship.

Once again, there are no prizes for guessing what happens. The closeness of
Karl’s relationship with
Frankie — which he summarizes by saying that
“He likes the way I talk and I like
the way he talks” — extends to a
general protectiveness toward him and his mother, who bakes him the first
biscuits he has had since childhood, against Doyle. So are things set up to
justify the ending. And just to make certain sure, we are told a heart-rending
story of how Karl’s father had once
brought to him “a little
ol’ baby no bigger than a
squirrel” in a shoebox and told him to
bury it. The baby was still alive and would have been his baby brother, but he
buried it because he was only six or seven years old and never knew before to do
anything but obey his parents.” When
he finally goes to see his father he tells him:
“You ought not have killed my little
brother. He would have had fun some

It’s a nice film and, as I say,
well written and acted. But I have my doubts about it on two scores. One is the
aspect of pathography. Anytime you make a mentally ill or retarded person the
dramatic focus, you take it away from the central job of artistic creation,
which is to make the audience identify itself with the principal character. You
take the terror away from the pity and are left with a fatal attitude of
condescension. The other thing is the clichéd nature of the situation
into which poor Karl is put. For the umpteenth time in recent years we have an
abusive parent, or step-parent, a battered spouse, a lovable child and, above
all, the attitude that someone who terrorizes a woman or a child (Doyle never
actually even hits Frankie or his mother, that we can see on screen, though both
of them behave aggressively toward him at one point) deserves to die. I have a
few qualms, myself, about applauding as a good-natured mental defective
casually executes someone who is deemed by cultural fashion to have put himself
beyond the pale of civilized treatment. Sexists, racists, ableists, homophobes
à la lanterne! As someone who has been called (I think unjustly)
names like these, I cannot be quite so quick to join in with the mob.

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