Sean K. Cureton

Southern Fried Satire

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on November 21, 2015 at 12:45 pm
Sling Blade Theatrical Poster

Miramax Films

Sling Blade (1996)
Directed by Billy Bob Thronton
Netflix Rating: Liked It

Billy Bob Thronton’s 1996 directorial debut, Sling Blade, didn’t garner much attention, critical or otherwise, upon its initial release, though it slowly built up praise for its Southern-twanged, social satire and powerful performances from an impeccably well cast crew of seasoned performers, and ultimately won the Academy award for Best Adpated Screenplay, with Thornton additionally nominated for Best Actor. Before the film was released, Thornton was hardly a household name, though the titular character for which he became known was a performance that he had been perfecting for years prior since moving to Hollywood from rural Arkansas, casting aside the milieu of William Faulkner for F. Scott Fitzgerald by proxy. In the time that has elapsed since Thornton’s emergence as a preeminent performer, both on film and on the stage as a recording artist, his particular presence has become indispensable, having offered such iconic misanthropes as Ed Crane in the Coen Brothers The Man Who Wasn’t There and Willie T. Stokes in Terry Zwigoff’s offbeat holiday studio comedy Bad Santa. But it is probably for Sling Blade that Thornton will be remembered the most fondly, as the homicidal simpleton Karl Childers still proves resonant nearly fifteen years on. Like Faulker, Thronton’s first major motion picture as a writer, actor, and director provides a unique perspective on regional living, however accentuated for the sake narrative convenience its plot may be as a whole.

At the beginning of Thornton’s contemporary Southern folk tale, Childers explains the reasons for killing his mother and her presumed lover with an atypical lack of emotional affect, his actions related with the matter of fact, expressionless tone and demeanor that makes up for his entire character, or perhaps a lack thereof. The contortions and physical transformation that Thornton undergoes to achieve the outward appearance of his regional avatar is remarkable, albeit slight and mawkish, though it rings with all of the sincerity of the very best of Mark Twain’s narrative inventions. Childers’ motivations and ability to emote are expectedly limited and archaic, and the plot progresses with an admittedly plodding predictability that at times threatens to overtake the expose the entire production for certain sort of Hollywood brand exploitation. But Thornton rides high as the master and commander of the film, and imbues much of its more tiresome beats and climactic sequences and scenes with the realism of someone who intimately knows the people he has constructed for a form of manufactured entertainment at times masquerading as anthropological recitation. Sling Blade will never reach the heights established by such contemporary authors of Southern life and morals as a Cormac McCarthy, though it might just be the closest thing on film to what can be more vividly articulated in prose.

Starring alongside Thornton as Childers, the late John Ritter, as the tenderhearted, homosexual pariah, Vaughan Cunningham, and fellow musician Dwight Yoakam, as the tormented, malevolent, patriarchal usurper, Doyle Hargraves, round out a central love triangle of sorts that drives much of the action forward with plenty of atmospheric menace and unspoken moralizing that is so particular to the American South. Southern stories from American voices are often the hardest to articulate, which might be why authors as hallowed as Faulkner and Twain are still two of the most well known and highly regarded voices of their particular social caste. At times, the sort of regional satire that the film portrays with a visual tenacity that is not only coherent, but genuinely heartwarming and funny, can be hard to translate to those unfamiliar with its specific sounds, feelings, and deep undercurrent of unspeakable tension and seemingly unresolved historical turmoil. Thornton may only be able to offer bits and pieces of such a kind of cinematic narrative, though certain shots and lines of sparse, intermittent dialogue get at a lot of what makes his good-old-boy archetypes not only peculiar, but familiar as well. There is plenty to find fault with in the film’s at times stunted length, though it is shot with a slow, steadied focus and unrelenting gaze that at times appears to look at its subjects as people, instead of the homogenized stereotypes more typical of major studio releases, comedic or otherwise.

Sling Blade, for all of its Southern fried satire, is an intimate portraiture of true American hospitality rooted in a true-born native of its geographically based, socio-cultural traditionalisms. Thornton might be on the few Hollywood all-stars who could deliver a story as regionally inflected as this one, however obvious and stumbling the film sometimes gets in its awkward gait and faltering progression towards a conclusion that, while cathartic on its own terms, appears unrealized from the point-of-view of more discerning and demanding viewers of cinematic storytelling. At the heart of the movie, the performance delivered from Lucas Black as the young innocent that Childers might have been at one point in time draws all of the viewer’s attention, and makes up for some of the less-nuanced aspects of the film’s bare bones narrative structure and predictable final act. And it’s not only easy to get wrapped up in the war between the three men for the favor of Black’s widowed mother, but necessary and compelling in its appropriateness as a part of much of the regional mythology that the film is itself a part. Where a Mid-Western sensibility such as Fitzgerald’s may have become disillusioned by the excesses of the West, Thornton is decidedly more in keeping with the loyal tenacity of his contemporary Southerner McCarthy, and delivers a story that seeks to address much of his most intimately held beliefs, secrets, and wounds sustained as a native son of the American South.

Sling Blade is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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