All kinds of film craft are at work in Sling Blade, a subtle piece of artistry that may look like simple storytelling at face value. Consider the opening: the director of a mental institution calls for “Karl”, a man we know is a murderer. If you didn’t know Billy Bob Thornton was the star of this picture, you might easily assume the reminiscing sexual offender he is sitting next to would be the one to respond.
This process of take and double-take, while slowly getting deeper all the while, is how Thornton’s character is gently revealed: at first he is portrayed as a murderer, then a simple man with a mental defect, and then, eventually, capable of developing relationships with the people around him. The key word here is true: the truth is that Karl simply is all of these things, and Thornton’s skill as director and writer is that his character doesn’t really make any sudden, magical transformations; instead, the surrounding people tend to change by how they perceive him to be. (For example, the gay man Vaughan starts to talk with him about his sexuality, and ends up revealing more about his own insecurities than Karl’s perceptions about him.)
The movie is essentially a series of portrait-like conversations between Karl and the other characters, and between themselves. It takes the time needed to explore each of these in detail: the relationship between the mother Linda and her abusive boyfriend Doyle has a great level of simple honesty and realistic complexity.
But the friendship between Karl and Frank, the young boy who befriends him, is what truly carries the film. Here I watched especially closely for an overt sign of audience manipulation, and found only dialogue both plain and emotionally powerful. In the average movie based so heavily upon scenes of encounters between characters, the tendency would be for these to become plot points on the story’s progression, but Thornton truly values character over plot. In turn, the movie drifts into details that are unnecessary from a technical standpoint but much appreciated for me as a viewer being given more than the essentials: loose ends like the football game, Frank’s attempt to give a bouquet of flowers, Karl’s visit to his father. It is filled with details like the meaning of Frank’s “Secret Spot” and Karl’s love of “French Fried potaters” (hint: if you recognize the cameo appearance at the first Frosty Cream scene, you’ll probably enjoy the rest of the movie.)
And on top of all this, there is a layer of groundedness, of realism — I pick up on a Southern air without being hit over the head by stereotypes. I get tiny prickings of my own childhood from this movie, mostly because it feels like such a real place; how many films that are supposed to be about real people remind you of your own life? Like the other great touches in this movie, this slight temperament is subtle enough to work its effect without drawing attention to itself.
But, even the most meandering (budgeted) film journeys eventually lead somewhere, and there are a few slips of the hand which reveal the filmmaker’s conscious shaping in the midst of a natural world — for example, I personally could have done without four characters in a row saying “Karl?” near the end. Still, even if the conclusion isn’t what you’d prefer, Thornton deserves credit for digging so deep into his story and characters before finding his way to it.