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June 5, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Pajiba Blockbusters | June 5, 2008 |

Sling Blade is, if nothing else, a movie close to the heart of Pajiba. Billy Bob Thornton filmed his debut in Benton, Arkansas, a small hub just southwest of Little Rock which sadly conforms to some of the worst southern stereotypes - poverty, ignorance, and brutality; it’s a town barely removed from the swamp, of monstrous heat and lush green overgrowth frilling the edges of rotten automobile innards; its people a bizarre confluence of petty bourgeois lawyers and car magnates ruling over a lower class obsessed with football, country music, alcohol and Biblical hysteria. It was an easy place to hate, especially for left-leaning young iconoclasts - Benton was the town Dustin, Jeremy and I grew up in, and we fled as soon as we had the legs.

In the summer of 1995, Billy Bob Thornton (a resident of nearby Hot Springs) did the unthinkable, bringing ersatz Hollywood to our doorstep. Arkansas had hardly ever been a feature of American media in our lifetime (until that randy fellow found his way into the White House), let alone the suburban white-flight hamlet of Benton. So, watching Sling Blade for us is to be awash with nostalgia: There’s my friend’s house. I know that extra! That’s the high school football field. Did you know I saw John Ritter in Burger King? They’ve torn that bridge down by now… etc. That being said, it’s still a pretty damn good movie.

Thornton made in his modest sleeper hit a kind of pastiche of southern fiction, spanning the heartfelt glow of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the darkest gothic traditions. The main character, Karl Childers (Thornton), is like a Boo Radley who wandered into a Flannery O’Connor story, or Deliverance. Karl is a halfwit, not quite mentally-challenged and not quite idiot savant, whose eyes bear no palpable expression and whose jowly under-bite and simplicity render a voice like a Buick not turning over. Karl has been institutionalized for 25 years for murder - as an ostracized and neglected youth raised by a Biblical tyrant, he was forced to live in a ramshackle shed until he caught his mother in bed with another man. Wielding the eponymous blade, a banana-shaped machete, he murdered them both for their transgression. Karl, now a stooped man-child, is being released after all this time into a cruel world he barely understood in the first place.

Karl wanders home, completely at odds with his new situation, until the hospital administrator finds him a job at a lawnmower repair shop, where he can also live. On the outside, it seems that Karl’s situation hasn’t changed since childhood - he’s living in a shed again and confounded by most of society. But a chance encounter with a kindhearted young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), gives him the opportunity to genuinely relate to another human being for the first time. Frank is drawn to Karl’s strangeness, and the simplicity with which he looks upon the world. At the behest of Frank’s equally benevolent mother (local actress Natalie Canerday) Karl is offered their garage and a place at the table. Frank’s father committed suicide years prior, and his grief-addled mother has taken up with an irredeemable, violent lout, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), to fill the void. Doyle torments Frank and Karl when Linda isn’t at home, as well as generally abusing anyone around him with his bigotry, including Vaughan (John Ritter), a soft-hearted gay man (God save the gay community in Benton) who feebly tries to protect everyone from Doyle’s cruelty.

Thornton, like many a southern storyteller, finds the very heart of the archetypal American South embodied in its outcasts - Karl epitomizes the best and worst of Southern tradition; he’s simple to an almost mathematical certainty, and he treats others with only the kindest empathy. But it’s a simplicity leavened with Old Testament savagery; the world has been cruel to Karl, and he’s perfectly capable of responding in kind. Karl has to choose whether to forfeit his chance at redemption, in addition to his freedom, in order to spare other good people the horrors visited upon him. Ethically, it’s an unsolvable conundrum - to commit the same crime which damned you in order to redeem the lives of others, but of course, Karl views it much more simply than that: Will my suffering stop the suffering of others? That’s an easy choice, for him.

Thornton films Benton carefully, only shooting the dankest corners and densest rural enclaves to craft a portrait of a lost, disturbing world only just removed from jungles and wagon wheels. Anyone viewing Sling Blade will think the town is a cesspit of impoverished squalor populated by hateful goons or the downright weird. And it certainly is these things. Thornton doesn’t show the upper-crust of the town, the commercial sprawl and signage that are home to most of American suburbia (and equally as ugly, in my estimation). It’s a strange, hot, ethereally slow place, rife with a small-minded simplicity that was hard for us not to hate, but whose occasional turns of large-hearted kindness were impossible to find elsewhere. This is where we grew up.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and only goes back to Benton for funerals and Christmas.

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