Sling Blade

The real impact of Sling Blade lies in the way the movie draws the audience into sympathy with Karl, the "mentally retarded" protagonist who has spent 20 years in an institution after murdering his mother and her young lover. As the movie opens, Karl is released as "cured", and winds up befriending a young boy and living with the boy and his mother. At the end of the film, Karl coldly and mechanically kills the mother's abusive boyfriend, in order, as he sees it, to save the boy and the woman from eventual harm. Throughout the film, Karl appears to be a figure embodying simple goodness. As a result, there is a temptation to see his final act in the light of self-sacrifice and justice. That is the heart of the matter, because if we do see it that way, we have been seduced into applauding the brutal murder of a man who is clearly not the embodiment of evil that Karl is led to believe. The boyfriend is sinister, hypocritical, and verbally abusive, but we never see him involved in any serious violence – certainly nothing like Karl's total of three dead! We see the boyfriend blustering, insulting, but also apologizing, cowering under a barrage of objects thrown at him by the boy but declining to fight back, and generally presenting the dismaying picture of an oppressive and chaotic future for the family, but he is not the demon we may take him to be if we take our view from Karl and others. The demon lies in Karl, and the boyfriend is there to distract us from that fact. There are delicious clues: e.g., Karl's repeated comment that he has read the Bible and understood a good bit of it, but "not all of it". The parts he does not understand point to what is missing in Karl and completely undercut the too-easy assumption that his pre-emptive violence is morally laudable. Karl kills with the blade of a lawnmower – one of the machines that in his "idiot savant" mode, he is so expert at repairing – and at that point, we may realize that Karl is himself a machine, defective in moral reasoning, and programmed to kill by many remarks made by the other characters about the victim. Karl's identification with the young boy becomes, in retrospect, another warning. He means the boy no harm; he loves the boy. But it is a boy's imperfect judgment that moves Karl. The boyfriend very obnoxiously puts his lover's son in his place on several occasions ("We are the grownups, you're the child…", or words to that effect). But there is truth in what he says, and value in being able to distinguish the message from the messenger. This "irony of moral misdirection", by tempting us to embrace an attractive moral error and then making us reconsider when we follow the attractive embodiment of that error right into the slaughter house, may serve to clarify our principles. Note the passivity with which the boyfriend faces Karl's announced intention to kill him, note the man's last word, which we hear just before the blade falls (he calls Karl's name, softly, probably a strangely gentle supplication: a chilling contrast to the thunk of the blade), and note Karl, his duty done, calling the police and sitting down to enjoy some biscuits. A clever and effective movie.

DVD Bonus Features:

-Feature Commentary With Writer/Director/Actor Billy Bob Thornton
-Mr. Thornton Goes To Hollywood
-Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton
-A Roundtable Discussion With Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, And Producer David Bushell
-A Conversation With Billy Bob Thornton And Robert Duvall
-A Conversation With Robert Duvall
-A Conversation With Billy Bob Thornton And Composer Daniel Lanois
-The Return Of Karl
-On The Set: Billy Bob At Work; Doyle's Band: The Johnsons; Doyle Gets Pummeled; "Doyle's Dead" With Introduction By Billy Bob Thornton
-SLING BLADE Reviews

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