“Sling Blade” is without question the film that brought Billy Bob Thornton much deserved fame in 1996, as Thornton not only starred in the film, but wrote and directed the piece. “Sling Blade” is a dark story, but also not without hope. As a young boy, Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) witnesses his mom having sex and misunderstand the situation. This sight sets Karl off and he reacts by killing them both, which leads the authorities to believe he’s not so much a menace as he is mentally unstable. Karl is sent to a mental institution where he spends a chunk of his life before being released back into a society he has little connection to.
“Sling Blade” doesn’t spend a great deal of time focusing on the act Karl commits as a young boy, instead focusing largely on his difficulties trying to fit in with society again. Once back in town, Karl befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), who treat Karl kindly and even give him a place to live. Before Karl is able to settled into the job he got repairing mechanical equipment, his past begins to resurface as he observes Frank with his mother’s abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). This sets off a chain of painful memories from Karl’s childhood.
What makes “Sling Blade” so fascinating isn’t the story, though it is complex and original, but the characters that drive the narrative to a emotional ending. Frank and Linda are such warm characters, but Linda isn’t without flaws. Doyle is a villain, but not the masked kind; he’s in your face and obvious about his faults. Then there’s Vaughan (John Ritter) Linda’s homosexual friend, who eventually befriends Karl, as well. The late John Ritter is impeccable as Vaughn and displays a great deal of skill portraying the inquisitive southerner who sees Karl as more than meets the eye. Of course, it is Billy Bob Thornton as Karl that fuels this film by reaching great levels of depth, humanity and even moments of pure joy (see the moment where Karl discovers French fries).
“Sling Blade” certainly proved that Billy Bob Thornton is to be taken seriously. Not only does he deliver a heartfelt, daring, and literally transformative performance as Karl, but his script and directing style are exceptional. This is the kind of film that lingers in your mind days after viewing it. It’s the kind of film that is rarely made today, only thirteen years later. The pace does feel a tad slow at times, but it only enhances the mood and the build up of the story. With an incredible supporting cast - especially Black as Frank - “Sling Blade” deserved the recognition it got in 1996 (won an Oscar for Best Screenplay and Thornton was nominated for Best Actor) as well as continued appreciation today.
VIDEO: "Sling Blade" is presented by Paramount on Blu-Ray in 1.85:1 (1080p/AVC). This is another solid presentation from the studio, as while a few flaws are present, this is otherwise a fine improvement over the DVD. While the film has a slightly soft feel at times, many scenes still boast very pleasing detail and clarity.
A couple of minor instances of edge enhancement were seen, but the presentation was otherwise smooth and clean, with no noise or print flaws. Although the picture understandably (given the material) had a somewhat subdued look at times, colors still appeared spot-on, with no visible concerns. Flesh tones also looked accurate.
SOUND: The film is presented in DTS-HD 5.1. The film's sound design is, as one might expect, subdued and low-key, with little in the way of surround use. Audio quality is fine, with crisp dialogue and a clear, full sounding score. Dialogue sounds a bit crisper and more precise than on the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the DVD, but the differences are minor.
EXTRAS: “Feature commentary by Writer/Director/Actor Billy Bob Thornton”
Thornton offers a reasonably good commentary for the film - while there's a few gaps of silence, Thornton otherwise provides an excellent overview of the production. Given the amount of tasks Thornton handled, he certainly is able to approach the discussion of the making of the film from several angles.
“Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood”
A mini-biography of Billy Bob Thornton and his rise to stardom. Interviews with Thornton as well as those who know him makes this an interesting look at Thornton’s aspirations to leave his Arkansas home and pursue his dream of acting. With some clips and a look at “Sling Blade”, as well as some interesting stories from Billy Bob Thornton about the road to Hollywood, this feature is worth a look.
“A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones and Producer David Bushnell” This Roundtable Discussion is a laid back look at the group talking about music, movies, their careers, where they come from, etc. This feature is somewhat long, but fans will appreciate this glimpse.
“A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall”
A short but nice feature with Thornton and Duvall talking with each other. It’s nice to see the interaction between to the two actors talking about their friendship and their respect for each other as actors.
Also included on this DVD are: “A Conversation with Robert Duvall” This feature presents some more information about Duvall’s friendship with Thornton, as well as his role in the film. “Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton” A Bravo network profile with interviews about Billy Bob Thornton. “A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois”. “The Return of Karl” A look at Billy Bob Thornton briefly reprising his role as Karl. “On the Set” includes footage of several aspects of the film including Billy Bob Thornton working, filming some scenes, and Doyle’s band. “Doyle’s Dead - With Introduction by Billy Bob Thornton” is a deleted scene.
Final Thoughts: "Sling Blade" gets fine treatment on Blu-Ray with improved audio/video quality and a return of the terrific DVD supplements. Recommended.
The Film B+