Sling Blade, 1996. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Billy Bob Thornton, John Ritter, Dwight Yokum.
A friend of mine who has not actually seen this unassuming little masterpiece speculated to me about Sling Blade (and why she hadn't seen it) along the lines that it was an indie knock-off of Forrest Gump. I suppose I can see what she is talking about: Billy Bob Thornton's Carl resembles Gump in so far as they are both mildly retarded Southern Everymen. But since she hasn't actually seen Sling Blade, she doesn't really know what the hell she's talking about. Forrest Gump isn't a bad movie, but at its core, it is shallow Hollywood hokum. It uses The South and Gump's "Southernness" opportunistically, without any real feeling for what The South is and what it is to be a Southernera lot of the history of the last fifty years took place in The South, hence Gump was a Southerner. Sling Blade, on the other hand, is infused with its place and time: it is the real world; it is Arkansas: It manages without trying to make any grand gestures about its setting to take a snapshot of The South as it really is. The seemingly casual reality of Sling Blade makes its dramatic arc all the more devastating. Writer/Director Thornton's Carl is one of the great characters: Mildly retarded, turned out of the institution where he has lived most of his life, struggling with a weight of damnation that would break most normal folks ("I read the Bible. I don't reckon I understand all of it," he says a couple of times). Once well and truly on his own, he meets a boy who befriends him. The boy's mother is in a relationship with a man who abuses her and verges on abusing the boy. Carl finds himself slowly drawn back to the act which originally damned him. He revisits it twice: once in his mind when he confronts the father who disowned him, then once in reality when he confronts the man bent on destroying his friend's happiness. In between, Carl gets baptised. This is lynchpin of the movie, because the baptism washes away Carl's original awful sin of murder and matricide (for which the modern religion of psychiatry had already absolved him) and grants him a short-lived state of grace. Carl probably didn't know what he was doing when he committed his first crime, but the audience can't help but suspect that he knows what he is doing when he commits his second crime and obliterates that state of grace beyond redemption. Sling Blade is bracketted by a prelude and a coda that drives home the point: At the beginning of the movie, Carl is unaware of things as another inmate at the institution rattles on about his crimes. Carl is in a state of innocence. At the end, Carl is fully aware, or as fully aware as he can be, as the same gleeful serial killer rattles on; but Carl can no longer bear it. The bitter tragedy of the movie is that Carl knows right from wrong and, in the end, knows that he is fallen. The experience of watching him wake up to the fact bears with it a dark chill and a brutal poignancy. Sling Blade has the effect of gut-punching the audience. It isn't fair, but goddamn it hurts.
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