The first thing I put down in my notebook was a sketch of the profile of Karl Childers (played by Billy Bob Thornton). His lower jaw sticks out a bit. His hair is cut right down to his scalp almost. The sun highlights the contours of his face as his eyes stare out the window.
R for strong language
Being There, 1979, Hal Ashby, for Peter Sellers' outstanding performance as a likeable dunce
Once Were Warriors, 1994, Lee Tamahori, for a grittier, more "realistic" look at abusive families.
The camera lingers on this beautiful shot, just letting the face and the sunlight sink in. Indeed, throughout the movie there are shots (like this one) that would make beautiful posters or sketches. Thornton also directed, and he and Barry Markowitz, the Director of Photography, deserve credit right up front for making such a visually beautiful movie. But more on that later.
Childers’ character is fascinating and Thornton is rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal. Childers is mentally challenged. He is a hunched figure, always dry-washing his hands. He speaks slowly in a gravelly bass voice, each thought punctuated by a mumbled mmh-hmmh. As his friend Vaughan (John Ritter) notes, he always looks deep in thought (though he usually isn’t). He’s not the naive, sanitized figure that Forrest Gump was; Childers is slower and darker. Still, his soul is good and his perception is clear.
We meet Childers just as he’s being released from the “nervous hospital” into the big world. We learn that he had a tough childhood which ended when he killed his mother and her boyfriend. Now he’s a grown man and on his own for the first time in twenty years. He returns to his small hometown and, with the help of the hospital administrator, lands a job fixing lawnmowers.
Childers befriends a boy, Frank, (played superbly by Lucas Black) who has a childhood almost as rough as Childers’ own. Frank’s mom, Linda (played by Natalie Canderday), has a boyfriend who abuses both her and Frank. Her one good friend is Vaughan, with whom she works.
All sorts of bad things happen to kids in this movie. Childers’ parents kept him in a shed and nearly starved him to death as a child. Eventually we hear the awful tale of what happened to his brother. Doyle (Linda’s boyfriend, played by Dwight Yoakam) physically and verbally abuses Frank, and Linda watches rather than stand up to Doyle to defend her son. That Frank has no control over his mother or her boyfriend (and therefore, his own future) is visible in his face. Vaughan, who is gay, resents his parents and his family for not accepting him. Even Childers’ coworker jokes about killing his parents.
Yet in spite of it all, Childers, the main child of this movie (look at his name), grows up healthy in his soul, if not his body or his mind. He is perceptive and sympathetic to all the people he meets. He stays with the hospital administrator one night and displaces the teenaged daughter from her bedroom. When she asks why she has to move, dad says “he’s comp’ny.” In a charming and funny scene, we see that in the morning he has made as little impact on her room as possible. Childers later agrees to move in with Linda and Frank because “the boy” wants him to. When he senses Linda is sad he tells her the only joke he knows (which neither he nor I get) to cheer her up. He knows his personal history might affect the way people feel about him, so he is upfront and honest about it.
Though Childers may seem like a creepy fellow — after all he did kill his own mother — he is certain about his morality, which is good and just and understandable in its own way: killing is absolutely wrong, except when someone else’s life is at stake. Not just their existence, but their life.
Childers makes it his mission to see to it that no more kids suffer the abuse he suffered. He chides Frank for using bad language; he realizes that’s the sort of concession kids must make in exchange for a healthy upbringing; but he outright tells Doyle never to lay a hand on Frank again. A child should be chided and guided, but adults have to behave like adults, period.
In a beautiful long-distance shot later in the film, Childers and Frank are at a little pond surrounded by woods. This is Frank’s secret place. The pond is at the bottom of a steep hill — so steep that Childers has to walk sideways to stay upright. But like all the trees growing straight up from the slanted and crooked ground, Childers stays upright, in spite of his own slanted and crooked roots.
The secret pond is one of the many beautiful settings in this film. Another is the bridge somewhere between the hospital and the town. The first time Childers crosses, he stops right in the middle. The bridge extends off the screen on both sides while the supports angle up to the corners of the screen. Childers lingers in the middle and the camera lingers once again on him and on the sunlight in a shot that deserves to be hung on a wall for more than a brief second or two.
The plot in Sling Blade is good, but the characters, coherence, and cinematography are outstanding. This is the best movie I have seen in a long time.