Sling Blade is the kind of movie I wish I could recommend wholeheartedly. On one level, it’s another little-guy triumph like Big Night and Trees Lounge, in which an excellent actor decides to write and direct a small-scale vehicle for himself. In this case, the little guy is Billy Bob Thornton, already a proven screenwriting talent (he co-wrote One False Move a few years back) and now, like Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, a generous director who favors long takes in which he and his fellow actors can set their own rhythms.
Bad news first, though. Sling Blade, which stars Thornton as kind-hearted, simple-minded Karl Childers (that name is pushing it a little), often plays more like a showcase for Thornton’s undeniable acting chops than like a study of small-town Arkansas. Karl, who’s just been released from a mental hospital after 25 years (he killed his mother and her lover when he was 11), talks very slowly, which calls attention to his rumbling voice and strange throat-clearing noises. For about the first half hour, all I could see was Billy Bob Thornton showing off the vocal tricks he’d mastered.
Then there’s the story. Karl goes back to his hometown, where he finds work fixing engines; of course, he’s a whiz at it (why are movie simpletons always a whiz at something?). He also befriends a little boy (Lucas Black), whose mother is seeing a mean redneck (Dwight Yoakam in a surprisingly convincing performance). So far, Karl is Forrest Gump meets Norman Bates meets Rain Man; his fatherly, protective relationship with the boy reminded me of an old episode of The Incredible Hulk, where Bill Bixby befriended an abused boy, then got angry at the rotten dad and changed into big, green Lou Ferrigno.
In other words, we wonder when Karl will stop eating French-fried potaters and go Ferrigno on Dwight’s ass, preferably using the titular weapon. Okay, so now I’ve lampooned Sling Blade, goofing on its threadbare elements. Now for the good news: None of it matters much. Thornton’s acting starts to call less attention to itself once Karl has more people to react to; generally, his best moments are his quietest. The way he reads a key line addressed to Yoakam near the end (I won’t spoil it by quoting it) is first-rate and memorably chilling. And the slowness of the movie gets to us. Thornton gives his actors — Natalie Canerday as the boy’s mom, the improbably coiffed John Ritter as her gay boss and friend — plenty of space to build their characters. We begin to pick up cross-currents of kindness and dread from these people, who seem to have unconsciously summoned Karl as an avenging angel.
There are a couple of missteps near the end: Karl gets too folksy-poetic in his speech, and as the film builds to its conclusion, we wonder why nobody sees it coming. But the last two scenes are brilliant, and Thornton avoids the happy visiting-day finale I expected. Karl has found a family he loves; to save it, he must leave it forever. Sling Blade has a dull side, but it also has an edge sharp enough to draw blood.