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'Sling Blade': Precision Work

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 7, 1997

In "Sling Blade," we’re lured into a chilling encounter with convicted killer Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton). The withdrawn, slightly retarded inmate, who’s about to leave a state mental hospital after 25 years, has agreed to an interview with a reporter. But there are conditions. The lights need to be lowered. The reporter -- an intimidated college student -- must not stare directly at Karl, nor ask questions. It is the interviewee who will control this conversation.

Karl, his face half-bathed in darkness, tells a grim story. Born dirt-poor in a southern town to religious fanatics, he was raised on the Bible and the taunts of others. When the 12-year-old witnessed his mother having sex with one of his chief tormentors, he thought he should intervene. He went for the nearest weapon.

"Some folks call it a kaiser blade," he says of the scythe-like instrument he used to kill the pair. "I call it a sling blade."

Karl seems lost in himself, entombed in a sort of living death. His eyes seem dead. He punctuates his sentences with a low, guttural Mmmmm-hmmmmm. His upper lip is shoved tightly inside the lower one. The sides of his head are shaved close in an absurd, pudding-bowl cut. Listening to him, we’re sucked into the soft-spoken whirlpool of his soul.

"Will you ever kill anybody again, Karl?" asks the reporter.

Karl pauses before answering. "I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill nobody," he replies.

When Karl makes his reentry into his hometown, carrying a handful of books (including the Bible) tied up with string, he’s given a fighting chance. The asylum administrator (Jimmy Hampton) has set up a job for him at the local fix-it shop. And soon after his arrival, Karl is befriended by Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a plucky kid who accepts him immediately.

When Frank persuades his widowed mother (Natalie Canerday) to let Karl sleep in their garage, an almost Huck-Jim friendship is born between the boy and the childlike man.

Karl finds himself caught up in a familiar home situation. Linda, Frank’s mother, is stuck with an abusive boyfriend called Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), who makes no secret of his animosity to Frank. Doyle, who frequently uses Linda’s place for impromptu drinking and card-playing parties, is also derisive towards Linda’s devoted, gay friend, Vaughan (John Ritter). Predictably, Karl’s bond with Frank becomes a new source of irritation.

Karl has the best intentions and, since leaving the asylum (which he calls "the nervous hospital"), has attained a simplistic serenity. But Doyle is so obnoxious, something is bound to give. Or is it? As Karl, Thornton’s a stunning presence. Whether he’s negotiating for French fries with the guy at a Frostie Cream stand (Jim Jarmusch), icily describing the slaying of his mother, or joking with Frank about the revolting ingredients in a can of meat, he keeps you in constant thrall.

He’s supported brilliantly by the actors around him. Ritter deep-sixes his cheesy sitcom image with a fascinating, subtly modulated performance. Country singer Yoakam makes Doyle much more than a redneck cad; he’s a terrified man caught in waves of conflicting personality. As Frank, who has his share of weighty lines to unload ("I think too many good people die, that’s what I think"), Black carries his scenes with youthful mastery.

Thornton, who wrote and directed the movie, has also created one of the most absorbing, even humorous, experiences in recent memory. An Arkansas native who cowrote "One False Move" and "A Family Thing" (with Tom Epperson), Thornton has an extraordinary ability to intermix humor with horror, and to carve unforgettable characters.

"Sling Blade" takes you down paths full of primitive, almost biblical implications, but it also finds comic relief in moments of palpable tension. After another bout of ranting, glass-throwing drunkenness, Doyle finds himself faced down by a united front of Linda, Frank, Vaughan and Karl. Barely able to stand, he can tell when he’s defeated. Before leaving, however, he offers one final insult.

"You bunch of freaks," he yells pathetically. "I hope you have fun."

SLING BLADE (R) — Contains profanity and tactfully portrayed violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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