Sling Blade

(Billy Bob Thornton, USA, 1996)


The independent American film Sling Blade is one that I was not exactly looking forward to; and I know some other film fans will be shy of it instantly. Here is a movie that comes with the dubious mainstream blessing of an Academy Award for its writer-director, Billy Bob Thornton. It is adapted from Thornton's own play, and is essentially about an intellectually disabled man named Karl. Karl is played by Billy Bob Thornton himself. So, if at this point you are bracing yourself for an uncomfortably sanctimonious, maybe patronising film in the tradition of Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988) or The Eighth Day (Jaco Van Dormael, 1997), I am pleased to say that Sling Blade is absolutely nothing of the sort. In fact, it is a truly devastating film on many levels, hard, cold and uncompromised where it counts, but it is not a film which makes a big sensationalist, morbid, grungy spectacle out of someone's intellectual disability. Nor is the film devoted to the utter glorification of the actor who can achieve this mimicry of disability, although Thornton is indeed remarkable in this central part. No, Sling Blade is a serious, focused and complex movie, and it joins the ranks of the best and most impressive movies of 1997. Sling Blade's minimal means, and its sustained grave mood, reminded me, with a jolt, of the extremely independent American films of Jon Jost – especially Jost's trilogy of films starring Tom Blair: Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), Sure Fire (1990), and The Bed You Sleep In (1993). Coming from me, that is one high compliment. In fact, Sling Blade reminded me of some of my very favourite films more than once.

Near the start of this story, Karl is released from a psychiatric institution for the criminally insane, where he has spent most of his life. He seems like a quiet, passive, even gentle bear of a guy, and one is probably willing to believe that whatever therapy he has undergone has helped him to reach a pretty good place. But he has committed some gruesome murders (with a sling blade) in his childhood, and he talks about that in way which does not necessarily indicate remorse or any recognisable self-knowledge. But out into the world he goes, into a small town where he befriends a boy, and also a bunch of nice, fairly accepting adults, who give him work, and eventually lodgings. However, the family he moves in with is a troubled one: troubled by imminent violence from the drunken, aggressive man of the house (played by country star Dwight Yoakam). His presence stirs up all kinds of phantoms from Karl's past, including the fact of his still living father, a very unlovely piece of work played for just one indelible and nightmarish scene by the great Robert Duvall.

I often muse about the difference between theatrical acting and screen acting. Often, I see what I think are objectively good performances from actors, which just do not sit well on screen, as if the actor's pitch has not been tuned in properly with the ensemble of everybody and everything else around them in the film frame. The Australian film The Well (Samantha Lang, 1997) is an example of this kind of disparity between essentially theatrical acting and cinematic style. One of the great achievements of Sling Blade is the way it turns every aspect of the actor's performance – every pause, every turn of the head, every slow weighty gesture of a body or a hand, every walk, stroll and run – into a truly cinematic spectacle, a cinematic event.

As the director, Billy Bob Thornton has chosen the most difficult possible route to achieve this kind of monumental performance effect. In much of the film, Thornton goes for long takes – shots or whole scenes in which there is no editing, just one camera set-up. He combines the long take with a wide shot that takes in a number of actors in full-body postures, and an essentially static camera. On occasion, Thornton makes this single long take (what would normally be called his 'master shot' covering the whole of the action) the only shot of the scene, with no cutaways or changes of angle.

Among film buffs and also many film students, the 'long take' style is a kind of fetish – a virtuoso thing that a lot of filmmakers want to pull off at least once, because Orson Welles, Scorsese, Altman, and various other greats have already done it in an exciting, show-off way. Sometimes the long take comes with a great deal of camera movement, like a steadicam shot that travels half a mile along a road or up and down several levels of a building. I do not think it is recognised quite properly that these flashy shots are as difficult to execute artistically as they are a challenge technically. The choice of this technique destroyed, for instance, the Australian film Aya (Solrun Hoaas, 1991) which clearly was aiming for a delicate, contemplative effect, and just ended up flat and non-communicative at every moment. Even some very talented and well-established filmmakers, like Abel Ferrara, the British Mike Leigh, and Theo Angelopoulos have sometimes crucified themselves on the cross of their virtuoso long takes. If the rhythm of the action falters, if the energy of the actors drops out for even a second, if the choreography of bodies, objects and surroundings does not click into place perfectly, if some important interaction or piece of narrative information is not very clear, then the long take becomes clumsy and unendurable, and its passing seconds and minutes tick away very heavily indeed.

Sling Blade has an unusual and brave formal progression. Very early on, it has a very long take in extreme close-up on the character of Karl, as he impassively tells the story of how he murdered his mother and her lover. This reminded me of the incredible start of Bob Rafelson's 1970s film The King of Marvin Gardens, with its long take of Jack Nicholson narrating the chilling childhood tale of how he and his brother let their father choke to death on a piece of pumpernickel bread. In Rafelson's film, that monologue is in fact completely mysterious, because it is a long way in before we even get the hint that he is speaking all this into a microphone on late night radio. But both scenes – Rafelson's and Thornton's – use acute darkness, a single light source to the side, and a creepily intimate voice closely recorded. Seeing this scene at the start of Sling Blade, I wondered whether it would essentially be a film in extreme close-up, like some of Andre Techine's most striking movies. But no: Thornton deliberately withdraws more and more from the close-up vantage point as the film proceeds; he takes in more of the bodies, the rooms and the leafy natural landscape in darkness or sunlight. That is different to Wayne Wang's well-loved film Smoke (1995) – another slightly clumsy and halting long-take film – where Wang reserves his close-ups for the ending, to preserve the cathartic emotional effect.

Although there is no strict, easy or instant correlation between how close the camera is to a human face and how emotional a film is to watch, it is still clearly the case that Sling Blade is a film that plays, in a very masterful way, on our emotional involvement with the story and particularly with Karl, its main character. The film elicits a strange and compelling mixture of passion and dispassion in us, of childlike longing and critical distance. Partly, it can do so, of course, because Karl is not your average movie hero: in crude terms, there is something alien about him, or at least inscrutable, unreadable; we never know entirely what he is thinking or planning, or what he feels about his own actions past and present. We wonder all the time exactly how dissociated he is from his own words, acts and gestures. And we wonder what kind of moral sense, what kind of conscience he has. As a mostly silent figure who does not, perhaps cannot, announce his future strategies, Karl joins a sombre company of filmic heroes, pale riders like Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome (Walter Hill, 1989) and the young Afro-American boy in the movie Fresh (Boaz Yakin, 1994). Whatever actions these characters eventually take, there is a mystery that surrounds their motivations, and a sense that their action entails a kind of renunciation of the world, an almost Christ-like moment of sacrifice for the good of others.

Sling Blade is a kind of morality play, or perhaps a moral mystery. The whole film hinges on a scene where Karl speaks, in a really successful and hypnotic long take, with the young boy Frank about some pretty grave matters of life and death. Karl comments, in a rare moment of absolute lucidity and explicitness that people who decide to kill themselves do not really deserve to live. Frank then asks him, pointedly, with reference of course to Karl's own past actions: what about people who kill, do they deserve to go on living? Karl appears to agree with that, but what exactly that moment of agreement means to him is something that is going to be worked out in the movie. It occurs to me that Sling Blade is a film that explores the mysteries of consciousness, and even more, the mysteries of conscience. If that sounds a bit religious, I think it is true that this movie has an almost Biblical trajectory, weight and force – an association that is reinforced by Daniel Lanois' powerful closing song, with its lyrics, "I'm a Stranger/In the eyes of The Maker". Even I found myself drawn in and moved by the biblical force of this film, even though I am not a religious person – not that I am aware of, anyway.

There are some flaws in this movie, some blemishes that momentarily cast me out of its carefully contrived and sustained mood. There are some over-stated moments, images that are too symbolically and dramatically heightened, like a long helicopter shot of Karl standing on a bridge. Not all of the choices of music, and the placement of the music during scenes, are judicious. I wondered a bit about John Ritter's character: his gayness is such a forced issue, and something of an imposed character trait. But those problems are small potatoes, finally, in a movie with such astonishing control of its form, its mood of terse pathos, and its moral subject matter. That sense of control is especially enhanced by the film's special undercurrent of dry humour, alternated with some heartbreaking moments of pure, childlike outpourings of transparent feeling from the characters.

Sling Blade made me ponder and remember many things. Like those films by Jon Jost mentioned earlier – essentially political films fuelled by an almost fundamentalist righteous anger about the depravity of the world, or at least, of our cracked, inhuman social structures that are impossible to live in without going berserk. Sling Blade also nudged me to recall one of my favourite lines of dialogue in all cinema. This line also happens to be one of the most mordant, most despairing lines in cinema, although it is delivered in a perfectly matter-of-fact and off-hand manner. It is in my all-time favourite movie in fact, John Cassavetes' film Love Streams (1984), and in it Cassavetes himself at one point leans in a doorway and intones: "Life is a series of suicides, promises broken, children smashed, whatever". The 'whatever' is the kicker in that statement.

Sling Blade, too, has a pretty grim inventory: deaths and murders, psychologically abused children, violently dysfunctional and broken family units. Everywhere, at every moment, the past hangs like a very heavy and unresolved curse, casting its shadow of unfinished business, reminding us of a slate of moral debts whose payment is long overdue. But there is something uplifting, somehow, in Sling Blade: a sense of a dark abyss faced, if not exactly mastered or banished, and its implications and consequences taken inside the soul of a seemingly soulless man.

© Adrian Martin July 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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