It's been a while since Billy Bob Thornton wrote and starred in 1992's "One False Move." At the time, his dialogue was better than his acting. But in "Sling Blade," Thornton has written himself a role that any actor worth his salt would walk barefoot on ground glass to play and son of a gun if he doesn't make the most of the chance. Thornton IS Karl Childers, a mentally retarded man (and a Capricorn) with terrible posture who sounds like the late Edgar Buchanan and who's spent most of his life in a state hospital for killing his mother and a young man many years before. Now, Karl is well and he can't stay in hospital anymore, as much as he'd like to.
The hospital administrator (James Hampton) helps him get a job as a repairman, and Karl befriends Frank Wheatley, a fatherless little boy who lives with his mother Linda, and, sometimes, her alcoholic and abusive boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves. Linda's best friend is Vaughan Cunningham, a gay co-worker and a Virgo. Vaughan is played by a nearly unrecognizable John Ritter, in a startling, fully-shaded performance. Vaughan wants to leave town, but he has a boyfriend and he cares about Frank and Linda, particularly when Doyle starts drinking and hitting people. Frank attaches himself to Karl, even when he finds out why his new friend was in the state hospital and Linda (Natalie Canerday) invites him to stay in their garage, even though she also knows he was in the state hospital. She doesn't ask Karl to leave when she finds about what he did to his mother and the young man or even when he comes into her bedroom in the night, holding a hammer and asking to be baptized. (Frank and Linda are both Cancers, maybe that's why.)
Doyle (played right on target by Dwight Yoakam as an Aries with Scorpio rising) gets drunker and meaner and life in the Wheatley home gets more and more tense. Karl tries to confront his past, both by going to see his no-account Dad (Robert Duvall in a cameo) and by talking about his crumby childhood with Frank. The 134 m. film moves at a deliberate pace: We know where the plot is going, but we're in no real hurry to get there, with all those rich characters & quirky humor and the tremendous star turns by Thornton and by Lucas ("American Gothic") Black as Frank. "Sling Blade" is a pure American original: Filled with tenderness & understanding, but also with a sense of the harsh measures needed to fight evil when it's destroying the lives of the only folks you've ever loved.
© 2003 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 9/17/03
USA - 1996