Thornton's 'Sling Blade': Southern unsentimentality Review: Heart and harsh reality radiate from Oscar-nominated film.

February 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Karl Childers has the prognathous jaw of a sloth, grim little pig eyes and the plodding orneriness of a mule. But he is human, if damaged. Ask him a question and he'll devour the time between hearing you and confabulating some kind of an answer by manufacturing an odd sound, not really a growl but a growl cut with phlegm and melancholy: MMMMMMMMMfffffffffffff. You get the impression not merely that he can't think of more than one thing at once, but that he's got to fix on that one thing with all his might or it will vanish entirely and he will forget who he is or why he's there.

But fortunately Billy Bob Thornton didn't forget why he was there. Thornton not only made up Karl but plays him, wrote his lines (and everybody else's) and directed himself in the slow, deep river of a movie that is "Sling Blade." For his efforts he got A) a couple of Oscar nominations on Tuesday and B) a major film career for the rest of his life.

Thornton's Karl, born of the rural poor in the farthest reaches of some Arkansas possum hollow, has spent 25 years in a mental institution. Seems he found his mama and a stranger grunting on the floor without no clothes on so he picked up a sling blade -- scythe, we call them in the North -- and made them stop their grunting. Unfortunately this couldn't be accomplished without stopping their breathing, too.

Now, he's ejected into the world by the exigencies of political reality, and heads back to his hometown to assemble a life from what little the world will still allow. That, as it turns out, isn't much: It's fixing lawn mower motors in the back of a hardware store. Sleeps there, too, on a cot.

Thornton, as Southern as any artist working in the world today, is no sentimentalist about his region. Unlike the lush Edenic old South of "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "The War," his is a banal, bleak place as picturesque as a strip-mall full of laundromats and convenience stores, full of hard-scrabbling folks inhabiting small circles of misery. They might be Faulknerian, but they've sure never heard of Faulkner.

Faulkner could have invented Karl, as could Harper Lee or Eudora Welty, but would they have come up with the last, wonderful twist: Despite his violent past and his imperfect understanding of cause-effect, Karl is a kind man, capable of feeling love, although somewhat baffled as to how to display it. He just has one of those molasses-drenched minds that gets from point A to point B like everyone else's -- only next week. His harmlessness attracts, somewhat like a recent Gump's (though he's from a different part of that forest!). Soon, he's become the odd cousin to a strange little family: the gay convenience store manager (John Ritter), his cashier (Natalie Canerday), her boy (Lucas Black), all decent folks too. It would be so nice, if only

There's always an "if only" and that seems to be the thrust of "Sling Blade"; the if only is Canerday's boyfriend, played by C-W star Dwight Yoakam in the movie's second-best performance. Yoakam's character would have been in the lynch mob in either "Intruder in the Dust" or "To Kill a Mockingbird." He would have charged with Pickett, invaded Normandy, been blown-away at Firebase Maryanne. The hard-as-nails, blue-collar Southerner, quick to rile, mule-proud but mean as spit by natural inclination. He's got to pick on everybody and he fills his role in life to spread the grief of his place in society to those within reach of his fists.

I love the fact that he's not a mythic monster, a psycho (there is one of those, back in the asylum, played chillingly by J.T. Walsh), a Satan. He's just an ol' boy who thinks he can hit people or tear them apart with his words and he'll never have to pay the price.

ZTC The film builds slowly but passionately, not dancing to some Hollywood tune, but finding its characters where they are and letting them be who they are. Yet you feel the violence approaching and with it a sort of cleansing of the world. I do not regard what happens as an act of heroism; but it is an act of self-sacrifice, like the guy who jumps on the grenade, and Thornton makes you feel the pain.

Sling Blade'

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam and John Ritter

Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

Released by Miramax

Rated R

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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