Sling Blade Review

Released back in 1996, I had never encountered Billy Bob Thornton's much-revered Sling Blade until a few days ago; highly praised by critics and audiences alike, it cemented his reputation as a serious artist and won him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar upon its release almost ten years ago. Now, after finally watching the film, I'm struggling to find words that accurately express my thoughts – suffice to say, Sling Blade is not an average film and thus it becomes even harder to fully analyse and review it.

The film's narrative, however, is much easier to pin down and goes like thus: Karl Childers (played by Thornton) has just been released from a high-security mental hospital after being incarcerated for over two decades. Karl, a simpleton, was abused at the hands of his parents – and one day, after witnessing his mother locked in an intimate clique with a young friend, he snapped and killed them "with what some folks call a sling blade". Upon his release, he soon meets young Frank (Lucas Black), a compassionate and kind boy who immediately befriends Karl and they become best friends. What follows is a quiet and introspective sojourn back into the town that Karl used to live in as he tries to acclimatise himself to a life that was suddenly put on hold 25 years ago – and perhaps find redemption and closure at last.

Written, directed and starring Thornton in the lead role, Sling Blade is very much a labour of love for him – every element of the film is lavishly detailed. However, such love for your work does not necessarily translate to a good film, and I feel somewhat dejected to report that Sling Blade is not the classic that some other critics have claimed, nor is it a particularly good film in the traditional sense of the term. Whilst watching the film, I constantly admired the brave choices Thornton made, yet unfortunately these separate elements never joined to form a cohesive whole. The screenplay is not a conventional Hollywood drama: it's slow-burning and introspective, yet Thornton fails in fully developing any of the characters, and he is unable to present a catharsis at the end of the picture. Granted, the relationship between Karl and Frank is very touching, and Thornton does manage to at least define each character on the surface, yet he doesn't manage the more difficult task of fully rounding and developing their motives and objectives – when the film ends, each and every character is the same as when the film begun.

Likewise, Thornton's direction is unconventional, yet he again fails to live up to the film's considerable potential by failing to focus in on the characters and instead preferring to shoot with constant two-shots, framed at a distance. A sense of intimacy is thus immediately lost, and, visually, Sling Blade fails to draw the audience into the unfolding narrative. I would like to accuse Thornton of being an inexperienced or just plain untalented director, yet I don't think that's the case – the film's cinematography, for example, is stunning – and instead I think it was a simple case of Thornton assuming that this particular style would work with the film's themes and motifs, when ultimately it doesn't.

Criticisms aside, there is most definitely a maturity and large amount of talent buried deep beneath the film's surface: as I have said, Thornton made a brave choice to write and direct in the way he did, and it is certainly refreshing to see such a unique viewpoint, even if I didn't appreciate it in the context of the finished film. Furthermore, all of the performances are excellent – it's a shame the screenplay didn't afford the actors further character details or development, allowing them to fully realise their on-screen personalities. Special mention must go to Lucas Black, who is the shining light of hope at the middle of this otherwise thematically grim and unpleasant tale. Much has been said of Thornton's own performance (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Geoffrey Rush) – again, I applaud his unconventionality and desire to take real chances with the material, but I also must point out several deficiencies inherent within his depiction of Karl Childers. Portraying the killer as a gruff, mentally handicapped individual is both a blessing and a curse – instead of attracting sympathy or empathy from the audience, the gruff exterior that Thornton puts between us and the heart of the character is a real obstruction and prevents the audience from being able to develop a bond with Karl.

This is the first time as a reviewer when I have simultaneously praised a film's creator for his bold choices, yet simultaneously highlighting them as the singular reason behind the film's failings. In the case of Sling Blade, Thornton tried to break the mould – and in some cases, he did indeed do that, especially when it comes to the realistic and un-Hollywood way of conveying a human drama to the audience – but he ended up causing the film more harm than good. The other people involved with the film do deserve acclaim, however – it does after all look and sound very good indeed. Daniel Lanois' score elevates the film during more dramatic moments, and Barry Markowitz's photography is fantastic.

I might be in the minority when I criticise Sling Blade, as I'm sure some people will enjoy it, but I just can't bring myself to recommend it as a worthwhile or enjoyable picture.

The Disc
Identical to the R1 version released in June, Sling Blade comes to R2 DVD courtesy of Buena Vista. Incidentally, it is worth noting that both region versions are of the director's cut, which adds around 15 minutes worth of new footage to the theatrical cut.

The menus are very tasteful and easy to navigate.

I was amazed to read that Sling Blade was shot for just under one million dollars, which makes the quality of this transfer very surprising indeed – the film does indeed look a lot better than it should do for a budget of that amount. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is sharp and colours are reproduced well for the large majority of the film's duration; it's far from reference quality, looking a bit hazy at times and showing the odd artefact and sign of print damage, but it's a pleasing transfer overall.

An atmospheric Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is the order of the day; Lanois' score echoes around the rear channels beautifully, whilst the dialogue is presented crisply through the front speakers – I have no complaints for what is essentially a dialogue-driven film!

This 2-disc edition has extras split over both discs. The first disc contains an excellent audio commentary by Thornton, which I gather is ported over from the Criterion laserdisc that was released in the late '90s. Thornton is an excellent speaker, conveying a lot of insightful information about his film and the roles he played in the making of it.

Moving onto the second disc, the most meaty feature is 'Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood', a documentary that runs for just over an hour, during which time it examines the man's career and struggles as he aimed to establish himself and ultimately make Sling Blade. Following on from this is a similar Bravo Profile on Thornton, which essentially repeats the same material as the previous feature, albeit with a few new goodies thrown into the mix.

A roundtable discussion with Thornton, producer David Bushnell, Dwight Yoakam and Mickey Jones runs for over an hour and contains some interesting production anecdotes, even if it does get a little tedious after a while. Still, there is plenty of information for the fans to get stuck into. A series of interviews ('conversations') with key players follow, including Robert Duvall and composer Daniel Lanois.

Rounding off the package is a 5-minute 'Return of Karl' feature, some on-set footage and a collection of reviews.

It's frustrating to see a film with such promise ultimately fail, but that's the way I feel when it comes to Sling Blade. There are some things within the film that are highly commendable, yet the lack of cohesion, development and catharsis ends up rendering the film obsolete. The DVD package, however, which is a direct port of the recent R1 Miramax edition, is excellent.

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