Sling Blade by Billy Bob Thornton deserves credit for the acting job of its director and writer, who also plays the principal role, that of Karl Childers, a mentally retarded man in his 30s released from a state institution — the state seems to be Arkansas — after serving twenty years for murdering his mother and her lover when he was a boy. The lover had been a spoiled rich boy and the chief of those who used to torment and make fun of Karl at the school yard for being strange and slow. He “saw red” when he saw this boy on top of his mother and nearly cut his head off with a “sling blade” (“Some call it a sling blade, but I call it a Kaiser blade,” he says — it appears to be some kind of sickle). Thereupon, when his mother had remonstrated with him and so revealed that she was complicit in this intimacy with the other boy, he had killed her too. Now he says, on being released from the hospital, “I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.”
That’s what he thinks. He returns to his home town but knows nobody there anymore except his father (a cameo role for Robert Duvall), who doesn’t want anything to do with him. But he gets a job with a small engine repair shop (he is said to be “a regular Eli Whitney with a lawnmower” ) and meets and befriends a small boy called Frankie (Lucas Black) whose father has committed suicide. Frankie’s mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) works in a dime store (now called a dollar store) and indulges her little boy, even to the point of allowing him to invite Karl to come and live in their garage.
Linda is dating a frightful bully called Doyle Hargreaves (Dwight Yoakam) who runs a construction company, is pals with the sheriff, and is fond of making offensive comments to people and then telling them, with a smile, that he is “just kidding you.” He especially hates midgets, antique furniture, homosexuals (like Linda’s boss, Vaughan, played by John Ritter) and “retards,” but he also hates Frankie. “Frankie needs all the friends he can get,” he says. “He’s a weak boy. His father taught him to be a pussy.” Naturally his hatred is fully reciprocated. Doyle has a tendency to become violent and abusive when he is drunk, which is often, and he has threatened to kill Linda if she tries to break off their relationship.
Once again, there are no prizes for guessing what happens. The closeness of Karl’s relationship with Frankie — which he summarizes by saying that “He likes the way I talk and I like the way he talks” — extends to a general protectiveness toward him and his mother, who bakes him the first biscuits he has had since childhood, against Doyle. So are things set up to justify the ending. And just to make certain sure, we are told a heart-rending story of how Karl’s father had once brought to him “a little ol’ baby no bigger than a squirrel” in a shoebox and told him to bury it. The baby was still alive and would have been his baby brother, but he buried it because he was only six or seven years old and never knew before to do anything but obey his parents.” When he finally goes to see his father he tells him: “You ought not have killed my little brother. He would have had fun some time.”
It’s a nice film and, as I say, well written and acted. But I have my doubts about it on two scores. One is the aspect of pathography. Anytime you make a mentally ill or retarded person the dramatic focus, you take it away from the central job of artistic creation, which is to make the audience identify itself with the principal character. You take the terror away from the pity and are left with a fatal attitude of condescension. The other thing is the clichéd nature of the situation into which poor Karl is put. For the umpteenth time in recent years we have an abusive parent, or step-parent, a battered spouse, a lovable child and, above all, the attitude that someone who terrorizes a woman or a child (Doyle never actually even hits Frankie or his mother, that we can see on screen, though both of them behave aggressively toward him at one point) deserves to die. I have a few qualms, myself, about applauding as a good-natured mental defective casually executes someone who is deemed by cultural fashion to have put himself beyond the pale of civilized treatment. Sexists, racists, ableists, homophobes à la lanterne! As someone who has been called (I think unjustly) names like these, I cannot be quite so quick to join in with the mob.