Sling Blade is a 1996 American drama film set in rural Arkansas, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also stars in the lead role. It tells the story of a mentally impaired man named Karl Childers who is released from a psychiatric hospital, where he has lived since killing his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old, and the friendship he develops with a young boy. In addition to Thornton.
The movie was adapted by Thornton from his short film and previous screenplay, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. Sling Blade proved to be a sleeper hit, launching Thornton into stardom. It won the Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), and Thornton was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The music for the soundtrack was provided by French Canadian artist/producer Daniel Lanois.
Karl Childers is a mentally disabled Arkansas man who has been in the custody of the state mental hospital since the age of 12 for having killed his mother and her lover. Although thoroughly institutionalized, Karl is deemed fit to be released into the outside world. Prior to his release, he is interviewed by a local college newspaper reporter, to whom he recounts the brutal murder of his mother and her boyfriend with a Kaiser blade - during which scene he notes to the reporter that, "Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade," the line from which the film derives its name. Karl continues, saying that he killed the man because he thought he was raping his mother. When he discovered that his mother was a willing participant in the affair, he killed her too.
Having developed a knack for small-engine repair during his childhood and his institutionalization, Karl lands a job at a small-engine repair shop in the small town where he was born and raised. Around this time, he befriends 12-year-old Frank Wheatley. Karl shares with Frank some of the details of his past, including the killings. Frank reveals that his father was killed - hit by a train - leaving him and his mother on their own - he later admits that he lied, and that his father committed suicide.
Frank introduces Karl to his mother, Linda as well as her gay friend, Vaughan Cunningham (Despite that Vaughan's surname is not revealed in the film, the credits state "Cunningham"), the manager of the dollar store where she is employed. Despite Vaughan's concerns about Karl's history in the mental hospital, Linda allows him to move into her garage, which angers Linda's abusive boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves. Eventually, Karl bonds with both Linda and Vaughan. In an early scene, Vaughan tells Karl that a gay man and a mentally challenged man face similar obstacles of intolerance and ridicule in small-town America.
Karl quickly becomes a father figure to Frank, who misses his father and despises Doyle. For Karl, Frank becomes much like a younger brother. Karl eventually reveals that he is haunted by the task given him by his parents when he was a child of six or eight years: to dispose of his premature, unwanted, newborn brother. In a subsequent scene, he visits his father, who has become a mentally unbalanced hermit living in the dilapidated home where Karl grew up. Karl tells his father that killing the baby was wrong, and that he had wanted to kill his father for making him do it, but eventually decided that he wasn't worth the effort.
Doyle becomes increasingly abusive toward Karl and Frank, leading to an eventual drunken outburst and physical confrontation with Linda and Frank. Linda kicks Doyle out of the house, telling him to go home and sober up. The next day, Linda and Doyle reconcile. Knowing that he has the upper hand again, Doyle confronts Karl and Frank and announces his plan to move into the house permanently; he plans "big changes", including Karl's removal from the house. Karl begins to realize that he is the only one who can bring about a positive change and thus spare Frank and his mother a grim fate. Karl makes Frank promise to spend the night at Vaughan's house, and asks Vaughan to pick up Linda from work and have her stay over also.
Later that evening, Karl returns to Linda's house, but seems undecided about whether he should enter. After asking Doyle how to reach the police by phone, he kills Doyle with two stabbing blows to the head from a lawnmower blade he'd fashioned into a weapon. Karl then calls the police to turn himself in, and requests a hearse be sent for Doyle. He calmly dines on biscuits and mustard while waiting for the authorities.
Returned to the state hospital, he seems a different person than he was during his previous incarceration. He sternly rebuffs a sexual predator who had previously forced him to listen to tales of his horrible deeds.
- Billy Bob Thornton as Karl Childers
- Dwight Yoakam as Doyle Hargraves
- J. T. Walsh as Charles Bushman
- John Ritter as Vaughan Cunningham
- Lucas Black as Frank Wheatley
- Natalie Canerday as Linda Wheatley
- James Hampton as Jerry Woolridge
- Robert Duvall as Karl's father
- Christy Ward as Melinda, Karl's girlfriend who worked at the Dollar Store
- Jim Jarmusch as Gene, the Frostee Cream employee
- Vic Chesnutt as Terence
- Rick Dial as Bill Cox, the boss of the small engine shop
- Brent Briscoe as Scooter, Bill's employee
- Tim Holder as Albert, Vaughan's boyfriend
- Bruce Hampton as Morris, the songwriting band manager
The film garnered both critical acclaim and box office success. It grossed $34,175,000 on a $1 million budget. The film received a 96% "Certified Fresh" rating by Rotten Tomatoes, with 47 critics giving generally favorable reviews and only two negative reviews; the site's consensus states "You will see what's coming, but the masterful performances, especially Thornton's, will leave you riveted."
The Washington Post called it a "masterpiece of Southern storytelling." Kevin Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the film is "a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative." The New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the performances but said that "it drifts gradually toward climactic events that seem convenient and contrived."
Awards and nominations
- Academy Awards
- Chicago Film Critics Association Awards
- Won for Best Actor (Thornton)
- Chlotrudis Awards
- Edgar Awards
- Won for Best Motion Picture Screenplay (Thornton)
- Independent Spirit Awards
- Won for Best First Feature
- Kansas City Film Critics Cirlce Awards
- Won for Best Actor (Thornton)
- National Board of Review Awards
- Won for special Achievement in Filmmaking (Thornton)
- Satellite Awards
- Screen Actors Guild Awards
- Nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast
- Nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Thornton)
- Writers Guild of America Awards
- Won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Thornton)
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