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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Gospel According to Sling Blade


Let’s see a show of hands – how many of you have seen the movie Sling Blade? OK, how many of you have even heard of the movie? To be fair, neither had I, until last year when my interest was piqued upon reading a tangential reference to it in an unrelated web forum. The movie came out in 1996, so I spent a good 12 years blissfully unaware of its existence. Sling Blade was written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who plays himself, just kidding, who plays Karl Childers, a gentle, big-hearted mental patient/lawn mower mechanic with a violent streak that spells his undoing.

It’s actually a pretty good movie, touching on many pertinent themes including alcoholism, domestic violence, homosexuality, mental illness, discrimination, single motherhood, abortion, and Christianity, without trying to jam the usual Hollywood agenda down your throat. I suggest that you add it to the top of your Netflix queue, wait patiently by your mailbox, watch it, then read the rest of this column. Warning – there are some rather coarse monologues from a fellow mental patient in the opening and closing scenes, and some rather colorful language from another character, but aside from that it’s pretty family-tolerable. If you read the original screenplay (which I did so you don’t have to), the movie actually tones things down a bit. I do recommend watching the DVD version vs. the streaming version BTW; the streaming version (Netflix instant watch) leaves out some semi-important parts.

Who is Sling Blade?

To really understand the movie, we have to ask the question, who is Sling Blade? We don’t necessarily have to answer it, but we do have to ask. BTW, the main character is named Karl Childers, but he has come to be known as Sling Blade in common parlance, after the name of the movie, which itself is named after the landscaping tool with which Karl ultimately vanquishes evil by killing Doyle Hargraves, …but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Sling Blade is not necessarily a comedy, but it has many tragi-comic elements, the most prominent of which being Karl’s character. His gravelly drawl and odd mannerisms, his overall humble simplicity, and his myriad difficulties communicating with everyday people take the edge off of what would otherwise be a rather dark movie. In fact, the almighty internet has several “soundboards” of Childers’ more notable quips. “I reckon I’ll have me some of the big ‘uns,” - a line from a scene at the Dairy Queen wherein Karl settles on “french fried pertaters” upon learning that they don’t serve biscuits with mustard. John Ritter also provides some comic relief with his portrayal of a paranoid and obsessively introspective small-town homosexual.

At the beginning of the movie, Karl is just being released from a mental institution, or “nervous hospital,” as he calls it, following a 25-year incarceration. As the movie unfolds, details of Karl’s past come to light, including:
- he was in the mental hospital after murdering his mother and her illicit lover
- he had spent all or most of his childhood confined to a tool shed behind his parents’ home
- he was not educated formally, but given regular, inaccurate “Bible lessons”
- his mental condition was the result of early child abuse
- he suffered ongoing guilt from having participated, under duress, in the abortion of his younger brother

Karl initially has trouble finding his place in a society that has left him 25 years behind, in an undefined southern US town that is not particularly open to “different” people. But under friendly pressure from the director of the mental hospital, a Christian businessman takes him in and helps him get his life together. Karl shines as a lawn mower and appliance repairman, a trade he picked up by osmosis during his childhood in the tool shed.

Karl befriends Frank and Linda, a fatherless 12-year old boy and his mother, and is eventually invited to live in their garage. Frank is bedeviled by Linda’s abusive and profane “boyfriend” Doyle, who is masterfully played by country music star Dwight Yoakum (“Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Streets of Bakersfield”). Yoakum provides some “inside” humor, as the leader of an amateur hillbilly rock and roll band comprised of talentless, tonedeaf rednecks with no singer. The main targets for Doyle’s abuse are Linda’s homosexual boss and best friend Vaughn, Frank, and Karl.

After getting on his feet, Karl pays a visit to his elderly and deranged father, played by Robert Duvall, who is living alone in squalor in the old family home. Karl fails to establish meaningful communications due to his father’s mental state, but does get some things off his chest. He expresses an initial intention to kill his father, and believes he would be justified in doing so, but decides to stand by and let nature take its course.

As the story unfolds, numerous subplots develop, including a love interest for Karl, Vaughn’s not-so-secret love life, Karl’s religious pursuits and viewpoints, Frank’s unrequited love of a local rich girl, and the development of a strong brotherly/fatherly relationship between Karl and Frank. Meanwhile, Doyle grows increasingly abusive and violent, driving Frank into a deep, inconsolable funk when he decides to move in with them and live “like a real family.”

At this juncture, Karl takes matters into his own hands. In an almost humorously abrupt and straightforward manner, he kills Doyle with a “Kaiser Blade,” or “Sling Blade.” He then reports himself to the police, having obtained instructions on how to do so from Doyle beforehand. “You might want to send an ambulance, or a ‘hearst’,” Karl artlessly instructs the 911 dispatcher, per Doyle’s sardonic guidance. Karl then sits down at the kitchen table for biscuits with mustard while waiting for the police to arrive.

We don’t see the aftermath, but are left to assume some level of redemption, at least from the immediate straits; prior to sanctioning Doyle, Karl sends Frank and Linda to stay with Vaughn, and gives them his meager savings. Karl may intend for this to be a relatively permanent arrangement; while arranging the immediate logistics, he makes a number of larger points. As if in answer to a previous, long-winded and complex explanation from Vaughn of the internal and external struggles of a homosexual in a small town, Karl starkly declares, “The Bible says two men ought not lay together. But I'll bet you the Good Lord wouldn't send nobody like you to Hades;” also: “you take good care of that boy.”

In the final scene, we witness redemption for Karl as well, at least in a limited sense relative to his baseline, through his resolution of issues, both with Frank’s family, and with his early life. He is back in the mental hospital again, this time, it would appear, for good. The perverted mental patient from the opening scene questions Karl on his experiences outside, and interprets them through his own depraved thought processes. He proceeds to launch into the same kind of lurid, nonsensical diatribe as in the opening scene, whereupon Karl stops him cold – “Don't you say another word to me. I ain't listenin' to you no more.”

So again, the question, who is Sling Blade?

Since you’re probably reading this on a computer, and most computers nowadays have flat screens with non-glossy surfaces, try this: Close all the windows, and set your display to have a black background. If the desktop is full of icons, you may want to push them aside. Now look square into the screen and you should be able to see a shadowy, distorted reflection of yourself.

There’s your answer.

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