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Sling Blade
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black,
Dwight Yoakam, Natalie Canerday, and John Ritter
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) was, as it was called in those days, a "slow child." Mildly retarded, he was beaten and mentally abused by his parents; forced to live in a shack behind the house with a ditch to sleep in and biscuits to eat every other day. His only teaching was from the Bible. On the day he found his mother underneath another man committing adultery, he killed them. As we meet him it is 25 years later, and Karl is about to be released after fulfillment of his sentence.

There is no question that Karl is slow of brain. From mannerisms, posture and the way he delivers his lines there is no question that Thornton is delivering an exceptional performance. Karl lives in a black and white world. The world outside the institution is where he was bad. He doesn't want to go out there. He has no skills but a knack for fixing machines, and it is with this that the warden gets Karl a job with a friend.

Quite by accident, Karl makes friends with a boy named Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black). Through him he meets Frank's mom, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who is in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam). Ironically, the best man in Linda's life is her boss at a local convenience store, Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter). Vaughan is gay. The film's setting is Arkansas. It is not an easy life.

It is a good combination of characters. While you may think you have it all figured out from the word go, before you know it Vaughan has fixed Karl up and he's dating. You expect him to raise a hand against Doyle, but he doesn't. Finally, in keeping with the Bible Belt setting, Karl asks to be baptized. That's all you need to know.

There are several things that make Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade unique. No, it is not that he directs, stars in and wrote the thing. We've seen that ad nauseam this year. What is unique is that the script is intelligent -- it doesn't lead you around by the nose, but gives you enough information that even if you figure out what will happen, you are surprised when it does. That's a sure fire sign of good writing.

A sure fire sign of good acting is when actors that you know all too well from television step out of the roles you are accustomed to seeing them in, and do so without a stumble. Thornton you may know from his recurring role on Hearts Afire, a comedy which ran for several seasons on CBS Television. John Ritter, well known for his more than broad comic characters and the star of that show, steps well out of stereotype in the supporting role. Dwight Yoakam is a famous country singer who has acted in much smaller roles only since 1993.

The only flaw in Sling Blade is that it takes its sweet time to set everything up and play out. The pace is perfectly in keeping with its setting, and allows you to get a good feel for all of the characters. Some of the people in the theater that I sat in shifted, waiting for something to happen. By the time that something did, they were transfixed. Saying anything else will give it away.

As with every film that earns more than a notation on my Nominations list, Sling Blade carries the standard "Oscar race" rating of . . .


Just thought you should know: If you played the "Kevin Bacon game" and tried jumping from Billy Bob Thornton to Cranky, you could do it in one. Include his theater work and you could do it in one another way. It has no impact on this review, but if you really want to play, send e-mail.

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