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'Sling Blade': Incisive

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 7, 1997

"Sling Blade's" sweet, slow-witted Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) stands alone in the confederacy of endearing dunces that is also home to the Gomers, Goobers and Gumps of folksy fiction.

While well-mannered and cuddly in a predictable Southern Gothic way, the mildly retarded Karl is also, well, a homicidal maniac. But a lovable one.

Karl is about to return to his home town after 25 years in an Arkansas state hospital for the criminally insane. The poor thing doesn't want to leave because compared with his childhood home, the stark institution was a veritable mansion. Besides, the middle-aged Karl has no friends except the warden and no family to turn to except for his dad (Robert Duvall), an abusive religious fanatic who kept him in a shed. Furthermore, Childers Sr. can't forgive Karl for the double murder he committed as a neglected, socially isolated 12-year-old.

Though Karl begs the warden to take him back, he soon finds a job fixing lawn mowers and farm implements and makes friends with Frank (Lucas Black), a lonely boy whose mother (Natalie Canerday) lets Karl move into the garage. Alas, her boy\friend (country star Dwight Yoakam) is an abusive lout who tor\ments Frank and Karl when Mom's working at the dollar store. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Karl has got himself into a fix similar to the one that led to his earlier crimes. Now he must decide whether to save his own soul or the life of the young boy he's come to love.

Thornton, a regular on the sitcoms "Hearts Afire" and "Evening Shade," transforms himself from the simplest of men to an avenging angel. Also the film's writer director, he has a somewhat naive but not quite Gumpish view of the mentally challenged. Like many a movie on the subject, "Sling Blade" suggests that maybe such people have a hell of a lot more sense than we do.

Thornton suggests that Karl's actions were in keeping with Old Testament law. And though Karl's weapon, a scythe known as a sling blade, ties him to more mythological interpretations -- not to mention any number of cheesy chillers -- the story is neither cheap nor highfalutin. It's evocative of creaking porch swings, Sunday-go-to-meetings and sticky custard cones from the Dairy Queen.

Like the eloquent, darkly funny dialogue, the film's characters, setting and cadences draw us into its world, with all its terrors and tenderness. What emerges is a masterpiece of Southern storytelling that draws a sharp line between good and evil.

Sling Blade is rated R for strong language including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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