Karl Childers in "Sling Blade".

The film is weird.

One of the strangest films you’ll ever watch is “Sling Blade” which is starred, written and directed by Hollywood heavyweight, Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton sincerely plays the role of Karl Childers, an unhinged man with the ability to ingratiate to almost anyone he meets. It’s an uncomfortable film about Karl as he goes on a journey to re-adjust into society and find a family to belong to after being released from a mental institution. He was sent there at twelve years old as punishment for an terrible crime he committed against his mother and a neighbourhood boy he hated and despite professing that he’d done nothing wrong, he wasn’t supervised upon his release.

The film is weird. Karl is confused as a simple man, slow to understand ethics and the situation around him but he seems competent. He’s intelligent enough to understand how to navigate his way back home without direction and also understand how helpless he was when he was dropped off in his home town without a place to return to so, he went back to the health facility he’d always known. He never tried to deceive the people around him. In fact, in a supervised interview with a young high school journalist, he confronted the decisions he made that led him to his stay at the hospital and plainly said that had he been given another chance, he would have done things the same. However, his doctor made the mistake of neglecting to supervise him beyond one or two visits to see how he was fairing. As a result, Karl’s skewed idea of how to protect his loved ones became an issue once again when he befriended Frank Wheatley ( Lucas Black), a little boy that he met at a Laundromat and decided to protect him and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday). He felt indebted to them after they took him in, so he decided to solve their problems.

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Since Karl is eccentric, it takes a while to fully realize when his behaviour is threatening to others in the film. Even though he looks unapproachable, and violent, everyone in the film seems to find him mentally challenged and therefore nonthreatening. They underestimate him because he speaks little and generally tries to make others feel at ease in his presence. In that way, “Sling Blade” cheats unsuspecting viewers from seriously considering how troubled Karl is. Thornton achieves this by presenting Karl as gentle to everyone he meets. As such, every character is quick to describe, even emphasize, how harmless he is, and he carries himself as though he doesn’t have a thought beyond thinking about eating. Just as well, the music and shots used whenever Karl is interacting with others, makes you believe that he’s perhaps changed. So, despite the dark omen that the film’s title carries, Thornton creates doubt almost up until the final shocking moments in the film.

“Sling Blade” is not a horror movie. It’s listed as a drama but it’s actually quite comedic and warm throughout much of the story. The only real instances of drama and chaos are ironically caused by Linda’s abusive boyfriend Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam). He causes problems whenever he drinks and disturbingly, despite disagreeing with his behaviour, Linda returns to him. She feels like she’s stuck with him so she continues to take him back after he attacks her son Frank. So, until Karl changes their dynamic, Frank is visibly anxious whenever Doyle is present. Of course, the way that Karl shifts their discord, in an effort to make Frank happier, is horrific and more so because he is well aware of how deranged his actions are. It makes you wonder if he planned on doing something wicked early on and reasoned that his impression on others would absolve him of accountability.

Subsequently, there is nothing special about this film and in fact if you decide not to watch it, you wouldn’t regret. Honestly, it’s actually very puzzling. It’s hard to fully understand the motivation behind the film considering the arrangement of the events leading up to the brutal final scenes in the film. It’s truly baffling. It actually feels like the film was haphazardly placed together to trick the viewer into seconding guessing their first impressions, which might suggest that the film proposes to cause people to be more reflective about the value of chance encounters and also in trusting their instincts. At the very least, “Sling Blade” is an incisive instrument to demonstrate the dreadful consequences of child abuse and of neglect (but that’s even a stretch). Its impact though, could be damaging since it implies that those who are mentally ill may not recover from their state to be independent and feeds into the stigma about mental health.

I’m not even sure what I watched or why the film was written the way it was. It’s not bad exactly just nuts. There’s a chance that if you watch it, you be pleasantly surprised at how pointless it all is, but it’s definitely not deserving of the acclaim it got. Anyhow, it can certainly distract you from the monotony of life. Still, just skip it if you can, but if you want to give it a try, then don’t expect much.

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