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Billy Bob Thornton isn't going to snatch the matinee-idol title away from Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner or Denzel Washington anytime soon. At the age of 41, the former Hearts Afire regular is also a grizzled acting veteran of low-rent slasher flicks like Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and modest critical successes like the neo-noir gem One False Move (which he co-wrote), and his deep-fried mug says more about his growing up poor in tiny Malvern, Arkansas, than about signing autographs on Rodeo Drive.
Still, Billy Bob just might be the movie-star phenomenon of the year. On the strength of a quirky, homegrown feature called Sling Blade, which Thornton wrote, directed and starred in himself, this late bloomer landed an Academy Award nomination as best actor last week to go with the lavish praise already heaped on him by such Hollywood glamourpusses as Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. What's more, fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton plans to screen this little deficit-buster (total budget: $1 million) at the White House.
What Thornton gives us here is a desire to communicate--and the kind of psychologically damaged but lovable hero mainstream movie audiences have been eating up since a fellow named Forrest Gump floated into the American consciousness three years ago. Billy Bob's creation, Karl Childers, has spent most of his life in what he calls "the nervous hospital," but in contrast to another inevitable Oscar nominee, Geoffrey Rush's traumatized piano prodigy in Shine, it isn't fear of Rachmaninoff--or even fatherly torment--that put him there. No, at the tender age of twelve, the slow-witted Karl killed his own mother and her illicit lover with a kaiser blade--"Some folks call it a sling blade," he explains dispassionately. As the movie opens, he's about to be released after 25 years in the nuthouse--an official decision the script doesn't adequately explain.
To be sure, Thornton's performance is an attention-getter of the first order. With his broad face screwed into a kind of gorilla bewilderment, Karl communicates largely with grunts, growls, hmmmmms and softly repeated phrases. "All right, then," he's always saying. He's a hillbilly primitive who's meant to scare the hell out of us in the film's first fifteen minutes, when, in a darkened doctor's office, he delivers a chilling monologue about his life and crimes to a pair of student newspaper reporters. A little later, after the state has dumped him back into the world (without benefit of job, lodging or guidance--really?), the audience learns to love him--much as it learned to love the Gumpster.
With his rough gray shirt buttoned to the top, high-water pants and big, blocky shoes, Karl's the picture of pained innocence--even though we know better. When he wanders out of the hospital carrying nothing more than six battered books strapped into a schoolboy's bundle, the image is complete. Due to his limited capacities, he's an avenging angel with the soul of a child--Lucifer by way of Steinbeck's Lenny--and we find ourselves rooting for him to keep his hurt at bay and the old demons bottled up.
That isn't easy--for Karl or for us. His own winning performance aside, Thornton ignores simple logic in quite a few places, and he liberally seasons Sling Blade with caricatures straight out of Baby's First Book of Southern Grotesques. There's Karl's new preteen friend, Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), whose Old Testament-style boyhood is proving nearly as rough as Karl's was. There's Frank's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), a golden-hearted store clerk who takes in strays with an abandon bordering on folly: Five seconds after meeting her son's odd new friend Karl, she invites the stranger to move in with them--without any inkling of whether he's a harmless lunk, a possible molester...or even a murderer. Oh, well. Linda's already pals with her run-down, gossipy small town's obligatory suffering gay man (John Ritter in a nice turn of casting), and she's inexplicably sharing her bed with a vicious redneck schizophrenic named Doyle Hargraves (country star Dwight Yoakam), who's always getting drunk, beating the grits out of her and threatening the kid.
In case we haven't gotten quite enough Dixie Gothic, a gentle woman, also of modest mental gifts (Christy Ward), drops by to serve as Karl's one-time dinner date, and the two of them take a strange walk in the moonlight afterward. By all rights, the ghost of Flannery O'Connor could sue for plagiarism.
But it won't do to judge Billy Bob Thornton's dramatic lapses too harshly. Ordinarily, a million-dollar outlay wouldn't pay for half the fervid small-town atmosphere in this impressive first feature, and the plain-faced star has created in Karl Childers a character so haunted, unexpectedly funny and memorable that the big spenders hanging around the corner of Hollywood and Vine might do well to retire the village-idiot-as-hero trophy here and now--before Forrest Gump II gets a chance to break out that damn box of chocolates again.
Meanwhile, things are looking up for Thornton. Industry hype could make him the favorite to win the Oscar, and--after all his actorish tribulations and false starts--Miramax has signed him to a three-picture deal. No matter how you cut it, no one named Billy Bob has ever enjoyed a keener edge against the competition.
Written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton. With Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, John Ritter and Dwight Yoakam.
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