With Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton did something that helped usher in the 1990s indie dream: A relatively obscure screenwriter and character actor at the time, he wrote himself a career-best role, directed the movie himself, and rode it to an Oscar and a lengthy period of unlikely stardom.
The film, which was released 25 years ago last week, isn’t the sort of thing that seems like it would become a hit movie that collected awards nominations. But in that indie-heavy year of 1996, it did just that ― comprised of a cast that had a longtime character actor as the star, a beloved sitcom actor playing against type as a supporting actor, and a country singer as the main villain. Also on hand in smaller roles were giants like Robert Duvall and Jim Jarmusch.
Oh, and the hero was someone who was established as having killed his own mother. Speaking in a deep lilt, accompanied with the occasional, guttural, “mmm-hmm,” the character was a true cinematic original.
In Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton was the writer, director, and star, and he adapted the film from his earlier short, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. Thornton played Karl Childers, a mentally disabled man who, years before the events of the film, killed his own mother and her lover after he caught them together.
Ever since, he’s been in a state-operated mental hospital, but as the film begins, he’s released, back to his small Arkansas hometown. The people in town, for the most part, are remarkably understanding and forgiving and allow him to lead a life in the town while working as an engine repairman. The film treats a small Southern town as a place where there’s a lot of hopelessness and bad things happen, although it never stops treating the people who live there with compassion.
Billy Bob Thornton was the writer, director, and star, and he adapted the film from his earlier short
Eventually, he befriends a 12-year-old named Frank (Lucas Black), his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), and her gay best friend (John Ritter), sporting an out-of-this-world haircut. Forming something like a surrogate family, they’re under siege from Linda’s abusive boyfriend Doyle, played by country star Dwight Yoakam as a terrifying, drunken redneck.
This leads to tension, and eventually, Billy Bob’s Karl is forced into a stark moral choice, making a painful but necessary sacrifice.
Sling Blade was an unlikely sensation in 1996, launching Thornton into a career as a high-profile actor that would endure for many more years, including a starring role in one classic, Bad Santa. He directed a couple more films, Daddy and Them and All the Pretty Horses, although neither was nearly on the level as Sling Blade.
I’m not exactly sure why Yoakam’s turn in Sling Blade didn’t lead to many more roles; he would go on to appear in the first scene of Wedding Crashers, before popping up earlier this year in Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho. Ritter showed major potential as a dramatic actor, something he didn’t get to do nearly enough of prior to his untimely death in 2004.
Thornton went on to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Geoffrey Rush, for another unheralded indie movie, Shine. In his acceptance speech, Rush imagined a conversation among the nominated characters, from the movies Shine, Sling Blade, The English Patient, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Jerry Maguire:
“There’s a game you can play where you create a dinner party where you can invite guests from any time in history, real or fictional,” Rush said. “The Academy has honored me by choosing to seat me as ‘David Helfgott’ at a table with ‘Larry Flynt’ and ‘Count Laszlo de Almásy’ and ‘Karl Childers’ and ‘Jerry Maguire.’ I can’t quite imagine where the conversation might head that night, but it has really enriched me as an actor to be seated at that table.”
No one has watched Shine in quite some time, but Sling Blade has endured.