Sling Blade

A review by Graeme Bacque

I honestly cannot recall when I last saw a film that left me with a greater sense of ambivalence. There are those who will say this movie makes a heroic effort to overcome the stigma and bigotry faced by those who have been labelled 'mentally ill'... on the other hand there will be many who will say the film only reinforces these prejudices. At this point, I really don't know where my own feelings lie. 

The film opens in the dayroom of a bleak, dingy Arkansas state institution, where we are introduced to the central character in the story, a man named Carl (Played by Billy Bob Thornton, who also wrote and directed). Carl had been incarcerated for many years for killing his mother and her lover, when he was a child of only twelve or so. Carl's family had turned him out of the house when they learned of his mental disability, forcing him to live for years in a rickety, unheated shack in the backyard. Then one day, Carl walked in on his mother and a neighbor who were in the middle of a sexual encounter... and he 'lost it,' so to speak. 

(The film's title, 'Sling Blade,' refers to a slang term for a sickle-like tool used for cutting brush -- in this case it became a murder weapon.)

Fast forward some twenty-five years... to the day of Carl's schedulled release from the institution where he had been confined since childhood. The tone for this sombre, cerebral drama is set at this point, where in an interview with a journalism student, Carl matter-of-factly retells the horrifying events of his boyhood. (None of these events are actually depicted on screen.) 

Despite some misgivings, it appears initially that the milk of human kindness is destined to flow in Carl's direction... there is the machine-shop owner who gives him a job at the urging of the institution's psychiatrist-in-chief, the boy and his mother who befriend him and invite him to live in their home, and the ditzy but thoroughly likable gay store manager who is a friend of this family's. (This man is clearly a pariah himself in this tightly homophobic small-town environment, and immediately appears to form a close friendship with Carl.) Then there is the tentative courtship between Carl and a mentally challenged woman who lives in the community... this segment actually had me chuckling helplessly. Some people might have been offended, but to my mind the segment was just too naturally and honestly performed to be so. 

Unfortunately this idyllic scenario wasn't destined to last. An intruder arrived on the scene at this point... the mother's bullying, abusive boyfriend. (Played by country music star Dwight Yoakam, in one of the more chilling performances I have seen in some time -- this guy is SCARY). This man was a twisted bigot who had it in for everyone... nobody was spared his cruelty and venom. (At one point, in a drunken rage, he sends a wheelchair-bound acquaintence crashing headfirst into a door). I'm not going to go into details, but to make a long story short, things escalate until Carl, who has shown complete restraint to this point, takes matters into his own hands to end the abuse to those he had come to love. 

The film ends with Carl's return to the institution he had been released from just weeks before. 

Billy Bob Thornton has earned himself two Academy Award nominations for this film... for his screenplay, and for his truly remarkable performance as Carl. The movie also benefitted from strong supporting performances by J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Cannerday and Robert Duvall, who had a small role as Carl's father. 

This film has left a great many unanswered questions, and hopefully will result in a good deal of discussion and debate. We have to ask ourselves: which act of violence was worse... Carl's murder of his mother and her lover, or the horrifying physical and emotional neglect and torment he was subjected to because of his disability? (At one point Carl tells of his father presenting him with his prematurely born baby brother, and ordering him to bury the infant in the backyard... the child was still alive at the time.) It is also true that Carl killed again not long after his release from psychiatric custody... but he killed the man who was abusing those who had shown him kindness and respect, and he turned himself over to police immediately afterward. Does this mean he was also a danger to the rest of society? 

I would strongly advise people to go see this film, to think about what they have seen, and to actively discuss it... not only between psychiatric users/survivors, but in the broader community as well. Despite my own discomfort with this story's outcome, I feel the issues raised here are just too important to let slip by.