Movie Review: Sling Blade

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Excellent -- a disturbing drama with deep, heavy overtones about morality.

Synopsis: Karl Childers (played by Billy Bob Thornton) is released from a mental institution, where he was placed 25 years ago for killing his mother and her lover. He returns to where he grew up, a small southern town, befriends a young boy and ends up living with him and his mother. As the story develops, characters and events unfold that drive him to kill again.

Review: The fascinating thing about Sling Blade, which was the long production of a short film Thornton did in 1993 ("Some Call It A Sling Blade"), is the paradoxical relationship between good and evil, and in a sense, the morality of right and wrong. The paradox is two-fold. First, the concept that what is "wrong" in one context might be "right" in another. And secondly, that even though these concepts can be easy enough to understand for even the least intelligent people, we can still encounter circumstances that make moral decisions difficult, if not impossible. The circumstances in this film do just that for us because of our experiences with dealing with these issues in life. For Karl, however, it's a very simple matter; he just sees, assesses, and acts. Is it the case that certain moral issues are so basic and fundamental that there is no middle ground? Hmmm.... good question.

Admittedly, Karl's simple-minded approach to life is refreshing to us, since we are usually completely absorbed in the analysis of our day-to-day decisions. The movie touches our sensibilities that reminds us of Occam's Razor: the best solution is usually the simplest. For instance, when a group of mechanics fail to fix an engine that won't start, they bring him over to look at it. The first thing he does is open the gas tank and says, "There's no gas." Ah, if life were only that simple.

Karl is a person who has some clear signs of mental disturbance, but it isn't as obvious to us as it is to the townsfolk as to "what" his problem is. Most people in the film regard him as mentally retarted. He's either that, or emotionally disturbed in a big way. Either way, he's a savant, who has incredible skills fixing things (mostly engines). He learned to read, and has read the Bible quite a bit. (In the stack of books he carries around, he also has A Christmas Carol, the book that tells of the morally bankrupt Scrooge who, through devine intervention, sees the light.) Karl was always remorseful of his killing his mother when he was 12, and has since become more cognizant of these moral issues. You get a good kick start from this from his monologue in the beginning, where he tells his story to a reporter.

As the story develops, you see that his insightful perspectives of people are acute and it's his exposure to the outside world and his having to live in it that bring final form to his development. In the beginning of the movie, he is talking to another inmate, who talks constantly about the rapes he's committed and his enjoyment of the acts. Karl just sits and listens -- or so we assume -- with an expressionless face. What is he thinking, we think to ourselves. We're assuming he's violent and criminally insane, like the other inmate. We got duped. :-) He was not only listening; he was forming his moral foundation.

After leaving the institution (and trying to return, saying that there's no place in the world for him), Karl befriends a boy named Frank, then gets a job as a mechanic. The relationship between him and Frank grow, and he moves into Frank's garage. Frank's mother, Linda, is a single mom who is seeing Doyle, a sadistic drunk who dominates Linda, abuses Frank and makes fun of Vaughan, a gay family friend (John Ritter). Karl sees what we also see in Doyle, and he also sees what the ultimate solution to the Doyle problem will be.

Karl's simple views of the world is his strength, and his mind is unalterable because his views are truly his and of original conception. In a sense, we like Karl even more because his pure and simple thoughts are the foundations for human morality in the first place. We are lead to believe that his morality comes from the Bible because he mentions it a lot. But we realize that Karl has his own mind on the matter when he goes against the Bible. In one scene, he tells Vaughn that, even though the Bible says that men who lay with men are destined for Hell, the Bible must be wrong, because Vaughn is truly a good man.

There are many events and characters that support these themes, and the movie is very consistent in this regard. It, like Karl, takes a very simple approach, giving us easily digestible characters who are not hard to pigeon-hole into good or evil slots. That would have made the ultimate "act" (and thus, the whole point) more difficult for us to take a firm position on: was it was right or wrong? good or evil? This is not a criticism of the movie, since it would have been too hard to get the point, had circusmtances been muddier. So, again, is it the case that certain moral issues are so basic and fundamental that there is no middle ground?
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