Sling Blade
Billy Bob Thornton, 1996
#8, 1996 Skandies

Karl Childers, a man with… what are they calling it now, "cognitive impairment"?… is released from a mental hospital decades after killing two people as a child. Shortly thereafter he bonds with a troubled boy.

Pattern 25 says that movies tend to be delivery systems more than they are narratives, and that certainly applies to Sling Blade. What does it deliver? These three things, for starters:

  • An alternative family. Chris Claremont rescued the X-Men from obscurity by replacing the fantasy on which it had been based — that you could bop Magneto in the nose before you were even out of your teens — with one that better spoke to the comic-reading audience of the '70s and '80s: that no matter how much of an outcast you were, you could find a surrogate family of fellow outcasts who would accept and even love you. Here we get gay dollar-store managers and handicapped lawnmower repairmen instead of fuzzy blue teleporters and feral Canadian ninjas, but the fantasy is much the same.

  • A freak show. Sling Blade falls squarely into the tradition of movies like Capote or Rain Man: yes, of course they have stories, but mainly the audience is there to hear the guy do the voice. Sling Blade has an episodic structure that makes it pretty clear that the idea here is to bounce Karl off different characters and situations and see what he'll say or do. "Let's see Karl try to buy lunch!" "Now let's see Karl on a date!" For all that we're encouraged to imagine ourselves as part of the film's surrogate family, and even to find wisdom in the exchanges between Karl and the boy, we're also supposed to laugh at the crude way they articulate their thoughts. (They're a bit like Huck and Jim in this respect.)

  • Vigilante wish fulfillment. The through line of the (extremely predictable) plot is that the boy's mother is dating an abusive asshole who's threatened to do her and the boy in if they leave him. The reptilian part of the viewer's brain says that the obvious solution is just to kill said asshole. And, hey, here we have someone who's made the same calculation, who's killed before, and who won't be sent to prison but merely back to the mental hospital he never wanted to leave in the first place. Convenient!

I watched this with Elizabeth, and she said that this movie struck her as unusual in how transparently it laid out a Moral Problem for the audience to consider: is it acceptable to pre-emptively kill someone who might not be an immediate threat now but seems certain to become one at some unpredictable point in the future? In this light, Sling Blade seems like a prescient allegory for the invasion of Iraq (right down to the mental competence of the chief player). There are also a couple of episodes that seem to touch on abortion. Still, as of this writing I'm going with the theory that the movie is more of a delivery system for the three things above than a political statement.

One last observation: the score is pretty bad, but it occurred to me that it's bad in a very familiar way. It seems like a lot of the indie movies I saw on cable in the '90s sounded like this. I guess what I'm recognizing is a heavy emphasis on ambient guitar noodling, maybe? That and/or the ham-handedness of the cues. I thought it might just be me, but Lizzie had the same reaction — she found the heartbeat over the "sling blade" monologue particularly ill-considered. (It's still light-years better than the soundtrack to Juno, though.)

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