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Southern discomfort
A region 1 DVD review of the Collector's Edition of SLING BLADE by Lord Summerisle
 

NOTE: For those poor unfortunates who have not seen the film, proceed with caution,
as there are spoilers in this review.

 

Since Billy Bob Thornton slowly made his way into household name territory during the mid to late 1990's there has been much retrospective praise concerning his first film as writer, director and actor. Sling Blade was a big hit on its arrival to the big screen and has lost nothing in its translation to DVD. A strong auteur work, Sling Blade stands out as not only Thornton's best work as director to date, but also one of his very best acting performances.

Karl Childers (Thornton) is released from an Arkansas mental hospital after 25 years of rehabilitation for murdering his mother and her spiteful lover. The quiet and 'retarded' Karl returns to his hometown and befriends a young boy (Lucas Black) named Frank. He gets a job as a lawnmower repairman at a local store and upon meeting Frank's mother, Linda, Karl is invited to stay with them and her angry white trash boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Family friend and Linda's boss, Vaughn (John Ritter), shares concerns about Frank and his mother with Karl, and as a gay man in a small Southern town, has an affinity with him as an outsider. Doyle becomes progressively more of a threat to Linda and Frank's safety, and Karl has to make the decision of whether or not to sacrifice his freedom and soul for the well-being of his new found family.

The first thing that becomes apparent in watching Sling Blade is the pace; slow, yet not leisurely. It is considered, thoughtful, and with an undertone of menace. Right from the start where J T Walsh unhurriedly and purposefully drags his chair across the floor of the mental hospital to come to rest next to Karl, there is an air of discomfort. This is made full by the eerie tones generated by Daniel Lanois' score, completing a sense of southern dread, as Walsh half-whispers his unsettling tale to the jaw-jutting silent and contorted face of Thorntons Karl.

It is worth pointing out that at this time we are not sure which one Karl is, and as he is being discussed across the way by the manager of the hospital and a couple of girls getting a scoop for their High School paper, the audience is forced to wonder if the monster they speak of is the vocal or silent character. As Karl is called out for the interview, Walsh stops his biographical story and, slowly but very surely, Karl rises and exits the room. Here the kineticism of the scene expands to the character movement, and Karl inhabits every aspect of the film. This is completed when we hear the man talk. Deep, considered and constant, without being monotone. There is a brief example of this as he is asked to do the interview, but the real impact hits you with the stunning monologue Thornton gives about his crime. This is seven minutes of pure genius that I could never tire of. Thornton likes long takes, and this scene is a prime example. The camera stays with Karl throughout the monologue, only cutting when his crime has been disclosed. This makes for uncomfortable viewing, but Thornton's compelling performance makes it an experience to watch. The set up in this sequence mirrors the cinematography, lit simply by one lamp, you could be watching theatre. Indeed, Thornton first performed the monologue on the stage as part of a one-man show. The entire film is shot very simply, with many master shots and long takes. Thornton makes a point of directing as an actor. He likes to give room for his primary craft to flourish, so long, wide takes make for character interaction, tiny details and realist perspective. Like the mainstream actor turned great independent auteur, John Cassavettes, Thornton has no time for convention and concerns himself with getting the most out of his characters. Jim Jarmusch, featured in a cameo role, is also a clear influence. Jarmusch also favours long shots and little editing, for the same reason as Thornton, although his laid back jazz-cool style translated from this technique is in contrast to the atmosphere of unease Thornton utilises it for.

What I really love about this film is how all elements work in harmony with each other so well; Master shots objectify the audience in the same way as Karl is disconnected from mainstream Southern society. This marries with Vaughn's character, who is also portrayed as an outsider, an analogy of Thornton's position in the film industry and his attitude towards it, shown through the narrative progression. The theme of the outsider is a classic independent film metaphor used in many narratives since the day Easy Rider (1969) made it commercially viable. It is a good trick if staged well, and this one is. The reason one identifies with Karl so well is because of what Thornton has not made him. He is not made out to be a hero, or a disabled dumb-genius, like Forrest Gump (1994), for example. It is not sentimentalised like Gump either, in the writing Thornton has been shrewd in not overplaying any characters. For example, Doyle is an angry and often unpleasant redneck, yet he deserves death as little as Karl deserves abuse and segregation.

All characters are balanced with a melancholy, and treated equally by Thornton for this reason. All main characters in Sling Blade share one thing, a sadness or unhappiness with the hand they've been dealt in life. The way Doyle differs from the others is in the way he manifests this unhappiness by taking it out on others. Karl is different in his naivety, although, one thing made plain is that he may be mentally impaired but is in no way emotionally so. His emotional compass drives him, his soul. Yet despite his unassuming and gentle manner, there is still an aura of dormant malevolence in Thornton's performance. Many have compared Karl to Frankenstein's monster, although what puts him apart from Shelley's creation is the fact Karl has more knowledge of his actions. He may be mentally disabled to some degree, but is bright enough to know what he is doing, and fully considers his deeds, in that slow, deliberate way. One way in which this anniversary DVD benefits from the inclusion of the full director's cut of the movie is to show this point more clearly. There is a shot of Karl outside Linda and Frank's house, cut down for the theatrical release where Karl is shown doubting his decision to murder Doyle. I love this scene for many reasons: the unsettling nature of the mise en scene; lighting, contrast, character position and movement etc., coupled with the haunting yet energised electric drone and howl of Lanois' soundtrack, create the perfect climactic atmosphere. But the key to the scene is in the lack of editing. The entire roughly three minute long scene is one continuous shot, just long enough to be uncomfortable, as Karl slowly hovers in limbo between his freedom and Frank's happiness.

Another thing that adds to the movie's raw and identifiable feel is the inclusion of non-actors. This is a technique also used by the sited influences previously mentioned, Cassavetes and Jarmusch, although the former had a much harder line towards realism and a point to prove about anti-method style acting, which I am sure Thornton had no concern with, so one would ally his use of non-professional actors more closely to Jarmusch's. Thornton used people he knew to be right for the roles he had written, regardless of their acting history, and the gamble paid off. It is impossible to separate the seasoned pros like Robert Duvall from the amateurs like Billy Bob's long time friend, Rick Dial (who, based on this performance, as gone on to play more substantial roles in bigger movies), to the credit of Thorntons casting and direction.

Looking at this film at its original time of release must have excited many people in the coming of a fresh new and distinctive voice in independent themed American cinema. A film strong in its writing, directing and acting, as well as tackling difficult subject matter subtly and tactfully. The American South in particular must have thought that finally there was a contemporary voice in film to reflect their way of life without resorting to stereotypes and poor representation. Therefore it is sad to see Billy Bob not keeping to this high standard in recent endeavours. His directing and writing since Sling Blade have not been a patch on his debut, and with the exception of the wonderful Monster's Ball (2001), I believe his acting was also at its peak. I'm sure he has it in him to make another movie as intelligent and well observed as Sling Blade, it is just a shame we have not seen the consistency or prolificacy in the last ten years of someone like Clint Eastwood, an actor turned American auteur whose success I believe Thornton could emulate.

sound and vision

The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 picture is very impressive, being sharp without obvious edge enhancement and having fine colour and contrast reproduction. The shadow detail, even in the more challenging scenes with lower light levels, is good.

The 5.1 soundtrack is largely front-weighted with little obvious separation, though is always clear and has solid lower frequency work in the music.

extra features

There is an endearing quality to Thorntons filmic naivety and straightforward manner which is present throughout the plentiful features on this edition, beginning with the Feature Commentary. As Billy Bob leisurely chats through the film he is humble, slow and often inarticulate and broken, with some gaps and repetitions. Much of this reflects the film itself and the Southern attitude it connotes. His detachment from mainstream schools of thought is apparent from the start. His manner is very different from many auteurs commenting on their work, although the usual "He was soo great in this movie" etc. talk is present, yet one is inclined to believe his sincerity more than others as he is an actor himself. His sympathetic nature towards actors is clear in this commentary and it is detailed how much of the content in Sling Blade is autobiographical or taken from stories he heard as a child in Arkansas. Although Thornton's approach is refreshing, his inability or nonchalance to interpret his vision from the screen to the spoken word left me with some desire to learn more.

Just as well, then, that the second disc is packed with extras. Beginning with the documentary, Mr Thornton Goes to Hollywood (66:46). A very informative biographical piece, with many talking head interviews with Thornton himself, his friends, family and professional piers encountered on his rise to recognition. You can't help but like the man and his simple attitude, and as this feature gives way to a lengthy set of retrospective conversations, beginning with A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones and Producer David Bushell (75:21), one sees him interacting with his associates in a relaxed and informal way, shooting the breeze casually about the making of the film. A highlight for me is the wonderful way in which he expresses his distaste for some poetry with comparisons to contemporary art, all with a bare bones Southern approach that only someone in Thorntons unique position in the industry could take without looking culturally inept.

Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton (43:21) is an episode from the Bravo series about actors and directors and includes input from a number of collaborators and admirers. Although very much in the familiar 'portrait of an interesting actor' style, it does not confine itself to Sling Blade and is very worthwhile for that and there are some very interesting contributions here.

Conversations continue with A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall (8:31), A Conversation with Robert Duvall (7:35) and A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois (22:58), covering Thornton as a figure in the industry and how Lanois worked to create the music Billy Bob wanted to enhance the picture.

These are followed by The Return of Karl (3:39) , a revisiting of the character in a single scene set up, where Karl (Thornton 2005) chats to a group of loungers in a living room, one assumes are Karl's new friends. A nice addition for the more sentimental viewer.

For those who like to see the men at work, there is an On the Set montage showing Thornton slipping seamlessly from actor to writer/director on location (4:38), extended footage of the patio band (1:47) and the on set filming of Franks protective outburst on Doyle (1:54). All this is moderately interesting, but to be honest, at this point in my viewing I required something of more depth to hold my attention.

The last featurette on this release is Doyle's Dead (4:23) , a deleted scene with an introduction by Thornton, shows the mood the film could have taken if it had not organically grown so dark. This is one of my favourite extras, as it denotes a humour that is not clearly present in the final cut expressing a lighter side of the Southern mind-set, putting me in mind of a Coen brother's scene, maybe an O Brother Where Art Thou moment. Yet as it references an earlier scene that is funny in a less obvious and more fitting way, I can see why it was left out in both theatrical and extended versions of the film.

The very last extra on the disc is a collection of three Reviews that I would consider a companion piece to the Booklet included in the set. It gives good academic-level insight into the film, backed up by the Esquire article printed in the booklet, along with trivia and previously unpublished on-set photographs.

summary

A great retrospective DVD celebrating a film that deserves all its recognition. The performances are uniformly spot-on, the soundtrack melancholically brilliant and the sparse use of editing perfectly paces the mise-en-scene. Thornton excels in all three production roles taken on, and all was set for a brilliant auteur career. It is a shame he has not yet produced anything of such quality since.

The DVD extras are more than adequate, giving a real insight into the way Billy Bob Thornton realised this movie, from a couple of days writing between shoots and gurning in front of a mirror in a dressing room to the stage show and finally the Shooting Gallery feature. It is also good to finally see the director's cut in place of the equally good, yet not quite so satisfying, theatrical release.

Sling Blade

USA 1996
148 mins
director
Billy Bob Thornton
starring
Billy Bob Thornton
Dwight Yoakam
J.T. Walsh
John Ritter
Lucas Black
Robert Duvall

DVD details
region 1
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
Spanish
extras
Director's commentary
Documentary on Billy Bob Thornton
Bravo Profile of Billy Bob Thornton
Conversation with actors and producer
Conversation with Robert Duvall
Return of Karl scene
On the set montage
Deleted scene
Reviews
distributor
Mirimax
release date
Out now
review posted
22 January 2006

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews