At first sight, Karl Childers seems like just another Forrest Gump, albeit a more realistic one, sans the glamour and boyish appeal of Tom Hanks. Make no mistake, however: *Sling Blade* is entirely lacking in the brand of mawkish sentimentality that films like *Gump* wallow in. *Sling Blade* is a tightrope act, a deft balancing of chilling Southern gothic and heartwarming sentiment, a gripping, dreadful and often funny tale of commingled love and violence, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton.
Karl (Thornton), big and silent, his eyes dead and his mouth twisted into a half-smile half-grimace, is a simpleton, staring at the world through the barred windows of a state mental hospital. He speaks deliberately, in a throaty drawl, as if carefully considering every word before concluding each sentence with a self-affirming “Mm-hmm.” When Karl really speaks, however, all the physical tics and quirks melt away: his story is gripping and horrible, and Karl is a natural storyteller armed with a chillingly simple directness. Karl’s childhood was brutal and cruel, and ended abruptly when he hacked his mother and her lover to death with a sling blade. Now, cured of his homicidal tendencies -- “I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill anybody,” he affirms -- Karl is about to be released from the best home he ever had.
Karl is a mechanical savant, with a knack for fixing lawn mowers, but more importantly, Karl is an ethical savant, a gentle, kindhearted manchild with an innate sense of right and wrong, and a simple, biblical sense of justice and retribution. When he befriends the boy Frank (Lucas Black) and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), both terrorized by her vicious boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), the plot is set in motion and a suspenseful tale uncoils slowly, with a palpable sense of dread, the terrible sling blade casting a shadow over every human affair in this little backwoods fable.
Karl is a marvelously original and uniquely sympathetic character. His various peculiarities -- a great fondness for mustard, biscuits and french fried "pertaters," his loping gait and highwater pants -- all make him seem slightly ridiculous on the outside. Yet Thornton makes Karl so appealing in his simplicity and goodness that the very idea that Karl’s soul is endangered somehow loses its abstraction and becomes quite simple and real. It is, in fact, the fate of Karl’s eternal soul that propels *Sling Blade* -- Karl is willing to sacrifice it to protect the ones he loves. It’s a fascinating, compelling twist on the moral simplicity that drives most movies. With scarcely a word, and nary a twitch in Karl’s affectless voice and demeanor, Thornton, having stripped away all other normal human affectations, distills Karl down to his transparent essence, to a mindless, bodyless soul laid bare. It is there that Karl exists, separate from the strange, damaged shell, there that he is already mortally wounded.
In yet another intriguing twist, the hateful Doyle, with his white trash bigotries and drunken violence, is like a dark copy of Karl, proof that a little bit of intelligence is far more dangerous than none at all. Doyle can’t separate love and violence any more than Karl -- both to spring from the same source. Yet, unlike Karl’s, Doyle’s violence springs from a fundamentally mean heart: where Karl is protective, Doyle is selfish, cruel and threatening, where Karl is self-sacrificing, Doyle is self-pitying. With all the inevitability of a biblical tragedy, Karl and Doyle are doomed to destroy each other, to cancel each other out.
That inevitability haunts *Sling Blade*, but without creating predictability -- it’s a neat trick, revealing the world through Karl, who approaches each experience with neither spontaneity nor expectation. Seen through Karl’s limited view, the world is both is scripted *and* surprising.
*Sling Blade* is fine storytelling, satisfying, complex, engaging, surprisingly funny and, in the midst of unfolding tragedy, quite moving. With a roster full of unique characters, *Sling Blade* features several terrific performances. John Ritter is a pleasant surprise as Vaughan, Linda’s furtive gay friend, terrified of being discovered in a small town where secrets are impossible. Yoakam’s gripping performance is equally unexpected; his Doyle is convincingly nasty and cowardly.
Thornton must be praised not only for crafting a fine story, but for a memorable performance that is truly remarkable and daring; he makes a simple man complicated, illuminates an ugly man with inner beauty, and pares a human soul down to the basic qualities of good and evil. Karl is no innocent, and his world is not a morally relativistic one -- he understands well enough what he must do and how it will be judged. What makes *Sling Blade* so haunting and knotty is the dense interplay between Karl’s ethical clarity and the many variations and gradations of good and bad that the rest of the world must reckon with.