The first words of Sling Blade are spoken by the late, great J.T. Walsh, after he drags a chair, loudly and mercilessly across a linoleum floor to plop down next to Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton), the film's protagonist. "A Mercury is a real good car," he announces. "That was the car I was driving that day." And he proceeds to tell a series of horrifying stories; Karl sits, and listens, and grunts; he may not be happy about leaving what he calls "the nervous hospital," but getting away from this guy would seem to be one immediate benefit.
It is perhaps a little unorthodox to begin your film with an extended, creepy monologue by a two-scene character, but there's nothing routine about Sling Blade, the fascinating, nuanced Southern Gothic drama that put Billy Bob Thornton on the map and created one of the great, iconic characters of 1990s cinema. It is intriguing to note how we have come to consider Thornton solely as an actor, forgetting that he wrote and directed this breakthrough picture, and make no mistake, in the intervening decade-plus, he's given us enough memorable performances to cement that reputation. But his delicate, precise script and painterly direction were all of a piece with his tremendous leading performance; lest we forget, he won his one and only Oscar to date for this film's screenplay.
It tells the story of Karl, a mentally impaired man who was placed in the mental hospital during his teens for murdering his mother and a classmate (with the titular weapon--"some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade") whom he caught in the act. He is now being released into the world ("they tell me I'm well"), but he's not sure exactly what to do with himself; a hospital administrator gets him work in a fix-it shop, and he befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) who offers Karl a place to stay. The boy and his single mom, Linda (Natalie Canderday), along with her best friend, the gay shopkeeper Vaughn (John Ritter, playing well against type), become something of a surrogate family for Karl, but that delicate balance is frequently upset by Linda's on-again, off-again boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) a drunken lout who openly loathes her son and mercilessly mocks Karl and Vaughn.
Thornton's screenplay, which is legitimately reminiscent of the small-town dramas of Tennessee Williams and William Inge, has a tremendous individual voice--he has a remarkable ear for the Southern dialect even for one-line characters with lines like "These are the people from that newspaper deal?" He writes in vernacular, but never makes the mistake of making his Southern characters dumb; even challenged Karl has an elegance and color to his speech, with statements like "I ought not worry your mama with comp'ny" and "He got me hired on with Bill Cox's outfit," and some of the dialogue (especially in the last scene between Karl and Vaughn) is marvelously poetic. Beyond the dialogue, Thornton's script is filled with three-dimensional characters and utilizes a structure so subtle, you don't realize how efficient it is; the events of the closing passages unfold with a precise, unforced inevitability (right down to the clean way he ends three consecutive scenes with three different characters saying the same line--"Karl?"--in slightly different ways).
Thornton's performance has been justifiably celebrated, both at the time and over the passing years, but it's particularly remarkable to watch now that he has crafted such a particular screen persona--with his bowl haircut, jutted-out jaw, and clean-shaven face, he's barely even recognizable here. His speaking voice was so widely recognized and aped (for a time in early 1997, it seemed like everyone was doing a Karl impersonation) that we may not have realized what an interesting corner he painted himself into with it; that flat, unaffected speech pattern forced this actor, whose expressive voice has since become one of his greatest tools, to find other ways to convey emotion--the stoop of his posture, the rubbing of his hands, and his eyes, which are often downcast and empty but occasionally flash with an intensity (as they do at the end of his confession monologue early in the film) that suggests danger and unpredictability.
The revelation of his work may have also overshadowed the impressive gallery of performances surrounding him. Yoakam, known at the time only as a musician, turns in a frighteningly authentic portrait of slimy, brutal insecurity--Vaughn calls him "a monster," and it's not hyperbole, which Yoakam manages to suggest in manners both large and small. The late John Ritter is rather wonderful in a performance that is quiet and sensitive yet slyly funny, while Canderday's work had always escaped my appreciation until this most recent viewing (she has a late-night kitchen chat with Karl where the delicacy of the writing is matched only by the understated playing). And young Lucas Black is remarkable; Karl's friendship with the young boy is tricky, requiring charm and genuine affection without any undertones of inappropriateness, and if that delicate balance isn't achieved, the whole picture falls apart. Black solves the problem by playing his scenes absolutely straight-forward, without a hint of cutesiness or pathos, and their closing scene manages to play emotionally without descending into easy sentimentality.
Sling Blade put Thornton forward as one of the many promising directors of the mid-1990s indie scene; it was also among the last releases of Miramax's golden period, before their pursuit for Oscar gold and easy profits led the brothers Weinstein to take less frequent risks on chancy films like this one. His next two directorial credits were both for Miramax, and he would probably be hard-pressed to pinpoint which had a more disappointing result; his muddled but enjoyable Southern comedy Daddy and Them (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) went not even direct to DVD, but direct to cable, while his film version of Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses (which he only directed) went though a production and editing process which could politely be called "troubled" (for what it's worth, I rather liked that highly-scorned picture as well).
He hasn't written or directed since, and we're poorer for it. Even in this, his directorial debut, Thornton's filmmaking is mature and patient; he tends to hold his scenes and monologues out in long, unbroken takes, trusting the audience (and his screenplay) to focus on the words and take in the compositions, rather than breaking the deliberate pace with choppy edits and pushy framing. His compositions are carefully chosen--during a scene of verbal and physical abuse in Linda's living room, Thornton stays in a wide shot, with Karl seated in the lower corner, listening and barely reacting, while a later shot stays over Doyle's shoulder as he apologizes to Linda, Karl, and Frank, recognizing that our primary point of interest in the scene is Frank's angry reaction, and shooting and editing accordingly. This no-cutaway method of shooting does cause a couple of scenes (like a rambling, post-jam conversation scene with Doyle's thrown-together "band") to run on a bit too long, but never to a point of distraction. In fact, from its startling opening scenes to the matter-of-fact brutality of its climax, Sling Blade is a film that never steps wrong--it is a rich, textured, terrific picture.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Sling Blade isn't exactly the first film you'd think of for an eye-popping Blu-ray presentation; it plays primarily in warm, autumnal color scheme, with few bright colors and no red at all (Thornton claims this is because he "doesn't like red," though Ritter floats a more interesting theory in the extras). The colors it does use are well represented in the 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer; the scenes in the woods make fine use of the lush greens of the trees and deep browns of the dirt, with strong detail and contrast. However, some shots are noticeably soft, and grain and black levels are hit-and-miss; in some scenes (such as Karl's moodily lit opening monologue), the blacks that fill most of the 1.85:1 frame are rich and full, while other dark scenes are noticeably noisier. Grain is fine in much of the film, but several of the scenes in Linda's living room are a bit too grainy, and a couple of individual shots (like Doyle's close-ups in the post-baptismal scene) are almost hazy-looking. It's not a bad-looking image, by any stretch of the imagination, but a quick comparison with the film's 2006 "Collector's Edition" DVD don't show a particularly notable upgrade in picture quality.
The disc's English 5.1 DTS-HD track isn't exactly system demo material--this is a quiet, low-key, dialogue-driven film, with an audio presentation to match. Center channel dialogue is clear and always audible, down to Karl's last "mmmhmm," while directional effects are crisp and present, if not exactly enveloping (though the chirping of the birds in the forest add some nice flavor to the surround channels). Meanwhile, Daniel Lanois' subtle but effective score is well-modulated--felt, but not dominant (and the unexpectedly strong bass adds some low-end punch to a few sequences).
Spanish 2.0 and German 5.1 DTS tracks are also available, as are English, Spanish, and German subtitles.
Luckily, Miramax has ported over the impressive batch of bonus features from that 2006 release (some of which go back to its original laserdisc) to help fill this 50GB Blu-ray disc. First up is an Audio Commentary by Billy Bob Thornton, which is laid-back and personal; he speaks quietly and conspiratorially, almost as if he's sitting next to you in the theater and is afraid to talk over the picture. There are quite a few gaps in it, but he tells some good stories and approaches the endeavor with plenty of humor (and some deserved pride).
Up next is "Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood" (1:06:51), a biographical profile of the actor/writer/director--his background and journey to fame, and Sling Blade's place in it. Thornton is interviewed, of course, as are a variety of friends, colleagues, and relatives. "My earliest memory of wanting to be an actor was seeing Elvis Presley," he remembers, and discusses how he became interested in acting, left his home in Arkansas, and struggled as an actor and writer before gaining fame as a writer and making Sling Blade. Thornton tells most of his story himself, and his memories of struggling as a broke actor in Los Angeles are fascinating and often very funny. Clips from his first leading role (the immortal Chopper Chicks in Zombietown) are included, as well as outtakes from his early TV show, Hearts Afire (which co-starred Ritter, who is also interviewed) and a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage from Sling Blade--it gradually transforms from a Thornton profile to a "making-of" featurette.
"Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton" (43:24) is a bit of a retread of the previous featurette, though a bit slicker and more recent (it aired in 2000). Interviewees this time include Matt Damon (star of the ill-fated All The Pretty Horses) and then-wife Angelina Jolie, and Thornton is glimpsed on the set of the unfortunate Daddy and Them. Next is "A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and Producer David Bushell" (1:15:25), in which the two lead actors, Jones (who plays one of the guys in Yoakam's "band"), and producer Bushell chew the fat about music, making the movie, the cast, their influences, and more. This is the one extra I probably could have done without--it's too loose and too damned long, though it's worth scanning through to hear Thornton's Duvall impression.
"A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall" (8:31) is a two-man interview, with the duo remembering how they met and telling some stories about working together. Thornton's reverence for Duvall is remarkable: "This guy is my hero as an actor," he says. "This is the guy who made me want to be an actor." "A Conversation with Robert Duvall" (7:35) is a one-on-one with the actor, who talks about the success of Sling Blade and their relationship; it's interesting, although there's some repetition between the two interviews.
Next is "A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois" (22:59), in which the renowned producer/composer plays one of his cues on a steel guitar and discusses his involvement in the film with Thornton. "The Return of Karl" (3:40) is a quick, entertaining piece with Thornton in character as Karl on the set of Daddy and Them, talking with that film's co-star John Prine. Next are three pieces of "On The Set" footage, showing Thornton at work (4:39), Doyle's band rehearsing (1:46), and the shooting of Doyle's freak-out scene (1:53). I won't list the title of the final featurette (4:23), since it includes something of a spoiler to the film, but it features an introduction by Thompson of a credit cookie/song that didn't make the final cut (and wisely).
There are only two problematic exclusions. The original short film of this material, Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade, isn't included, presumably unavailable due to its availability as its own, stand-alone release (or because of the bad blood between that film's director and Thornton). This was expected. More distressing is the fact that that 2006 DVD featured Thornton's director's cut of the picture, a full 12 minutes longer, yet it is nowhere to be found here--not even as a branching option. With only the theatrical cut included and those extra scenes unavailable (even separately as deleted scenes), a real opportunity was missed by the folks at Miramax, and a strike is cast against an otherwise-excellent selection of supplemental materials.
Sling Blade is, for my money, one of the great independent films of the 1990s (a particularly fruitful period for that corner of the movie industry), and if you haven't seen it or don't yet own it, I can't recommend it highly enough. However, the absence of either the director's cut or its missing scenes and the somewhat underwhelming quality of the video presentation leads me to advise those with the 2006 standard-def version to hang on to that one; what you gain by upgrading to this new release isn't quite worth what you give up.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.