Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Billy Bob Thornton|
|Produced by||Larry Meistrich|
David L. Bushell
|Screenplay by||Billy Bob Thornton|
|Based on||Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade|
by Billy Bob Thornton
|Music by||Daniel Lanois|
|Edited by||Hughes Winborne|
|Distributed by||Miramax Films|
|Box office||$24.4 million|
Sling Blade is a 1996 American drama film written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also stars in the lead role. Set in Arkansas (filmed in Benton, Arkansas) the film tells the story of a man named Karl Childers who has an intellectual disability and is released from a psychiatric hospital, where he has lived since killing his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old, and the friendship he develops with a young boy and his mother. In addition to Thornton, it stars Dwight Yoakam, J. T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, and Robert Duvall.
The film was adapted by Thornton from his previous one-man show entitled Swine Before Pearls, from which he developed a screenplay for the 1994 short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, directed by George Hickenlooper. Sling Blade proved to be a sleeper hit, launching Thornton into stardom. It won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, and Thornton was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The music for the soundtrack was provided by French Canadian artist/producer Daniel Lanois.
In the mid-1990s, Karl Childers is an intellectually disabled Arkansas man who has been in the custody of the state mental hospital since the age of 12; at that age, he murdered his mother and her lover. Although thoroughly institutionalized, Karl is deemed fit to be released into the outside world. Prior to his release, he is interviewed by a local college newspaper reporter, and he recounts committing the murders with a kaiser blade, saying, "Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade." Karl explains that he attended school with his father's boss' teenage son Jesse Dixon, who was a mean-spirited bully and pervert; he thought that Jesse was raping his mother, and decapitated him. When he discovered that his mother was a willing participant in the affair, he killed her also.
Thanks to the doctor in charge of his institutionalization, Karl - who is highly skilled at repairing small engines - lands a job at a repair shop in the small town where he was born and raised. He befriends 12-year-old Frank Wheatley, and shares some of the details of his past, including the killings. Frank reveals that his father was killed when he was hit by a train, leaving him and his mother on their own. He later admits that he lied, and that his father committed suicide.
Frank introduces Karl to his mother, Linda, and her gay friend, Vaughan Cunningham. Vaughan is the manager of the dollar store where Linda works. Despite Vaughan's concerns about Karl's history in the mental hospital, Linda allows him to move into her garage - which angers Linda's abusive alcoholic boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves. Karl bonds with Linda, Vaughan, and their friends. Vaughan invites Karl to lunch where he explains that a gay man and a mentally challenged man face similar obstacles of intolerance and ridicule in small-town America. He also warns Karl about Doyle's violent demeanor as well as his fears that Doyle might hurt or kill Linda and Frank.
Karl quickly becomes a father figure to Frank, who misses his real father and despises Doyle. For Karl, Frank becomes like a younger brother. As they grow closer, Karl reveals to Frank that he is haunted by an incident that happened when he was six or eight years old. His parents performed an abortion of his unwanted baby brother. The baby was wrapped in a bloody towel and given to Karl with instructions to "get rid of it"; however, Karl realized that the infant survived the abortion. When Frank asks why Karl did not keep the baby, Karl replies that he had no way to care for it. He placed the baby, still in the bloody towel, inside a shoebox and buried it alive. He went on to say it was better to "return him to the good Lord right off the bat," sparing him the abuse and neglect Karl himself had received at the hands of his own father. Karl later visits his father, who has become a sickly hermit living in the dilapidated home where Karl grew up. The father claims he doesn't recognize Karl and doesn't have a son. Karl tells his father that killing his baby brother was wrong, and that he had wanted to kill his father for making him do it, but eventually decided that he was not worth the effort. Karl thereafter decides to be baptized.
Doyle continues his abusive behavior. While practicing with his friends, with whom he is in a band, he erupts in an alcoholic outburst, ejects them from the house, and attempts to do the same with Karl and Vaughan. Linda tries ejecting Doyle from the house, despite his threats to kill her if she ever left him, which results in a physical confrontation. Frank is enraged and hurls household objects at Doyle until he finally leaves.
Linda and Doyle reconcile and Doyle announces his plan to move into the house permanently. He claims he will soon propose marriage to Linda, that Karl is no longer welcome to live in the house, and demands that Frank begin obeying his orders. Frank does not acquiesce and Doyle attempts to attack him, but Karl stops him and warns him never to touch Frank again. Karl begins to realize that, eventually, either Frank will kill Doyle and end up just like him, or that Doyle's abuse will end up killing Frank and Linda. In order to prevent this, Karl makes Frank promise to spend the night at Vaughan's house. Karl then goes to Vaughan's house and asks Vaughan to pick up Linda and have her stay over also.
Karl later returns to Linda's house with a lawnmower blade he had sharpened and fashioned into a weapon. He finds a drunken Doyle sitting on the couch inside and asks him how to reach the police by phone. Doyle, in turn, asks what Karl is doing with the lawnmower blade; Karl replies, "I aim to kill you with it". Not taking Karl seriously, Doyle sarcastically recommends that Karl dial 911 and request "an ambulance or a hearse". Karl then kills Doyle with two blows of the blade to the head, phones the police to turn himself in, and requests a hearse be sent for Doyle. He eats biscuits and mustard while waiting for the police.
Returned to the state hospital, he is less passive than he was during his previous institutionalization, having learned the value of sacrificing one's self to save others. He silences a sexual predator who had previously forced him to listen to stories about his crimes, before standing to look out of a window towards an open field.
The film garnered both critical and commercial success. It grossed $24,444,121 on a $1 million budget. The film received a 96% "Certified Fresh" rating by Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.3 out of 10, with 49 critics giving generally favorable reviews and only two negative reviews; the site's consensus states "You will see what's coming, but the masterful performances, especially Thornton's, will leave you riveted."
The Washington Post called it a "masterpiece of Southern storytelling." Kevin Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the film is "a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative".The New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the performances but said that "it drifts gradually toward climactic events that seem convenient and contrived".