Billy Bob Thornton had been around prior to SlingBlade. He co-wrote and acted in 1992’s Once False Move. He’s in Tombstone, Indecent Proposal, and Jarmusch’s Dead Man. However, he got his big break and became a name in 1996’s Sling Blade which he directed, wrote, and starred in. If it weren’t for Damon and Affleck in Good Will Hunting the following year we’d be talking about this (both films by Miramax) as the big Stallone-like story where an actor bets on himself by only selling his screenplay if he can star in the film. Billy Bob is pretty much an A-lister after this for the next 6-8 years working in films like Armageddon, Bad Santa, and even getting the lead in a Coen Brothers film (The Man Who Wasn’t There). He’s in nine archiveable films from 1996-2003—and zero since.
There are two films in Sling Blade— the first 17-minutes are sublime. That movie is a top 10 or maybe even top 5 of the year quality. It opens with a long take in an Arkansas State Hospital (or “nervous hospital” as Thornton’s Karl would call it). Thornton’s camera swings around in this three-minute shot following JT Walsh (always brilliant) as he drags a chair over to Thornton’s Karl looking out the window. By the way Walsh drags the chair you can tell there’s something off about him even before he speaks. Walsh positions himself in the background facing the camera which leaves Thornton’s Karl in the foreground, in profile. This is all accompanied by a great score that sounds like half-Vangelis and half Ry Cooder Paris Texas/Neil Young Dead Man minimal guitar. There is an eerie, brooding atmosphere created here—not to mention the magnificent shot (long take, tracking, and then reframing for a great multiple depth of field frame).
Very soon after this Thornton has his long take confession as Karl. He’s giving an interviewer from a school newspaper his backstory—most takes are minutes long each, the same score, close-ups. Again, such promise in that first 17 minutes.
But that’s it- the rest of the film (about 2 hours- in total it is 135 mins) is a fairly straightforward film with good acting and a good story. Thornton gives us the titles (very late into the movie—almost as a break between the two different films within the movie), but now the score is upbeat, the average shot length (ASL) is lower, the film is brighter—a total change in tone.
Shot on location in Arkansas where Billy Bob is from and the film is set
I mentioned Thornton appeared in Dead Man– well here Jim Jarmusch is the ice cream worker. That’s not the only cameo—the cast is pretty loaded- including a very tiny role for Robert Duvall who plays his father and really doesn’t have an audible word—he just kind of mutters in his long underwear.
A wonderful lead performance from Thornton – I almost didn’t recognize him at first, that voice and the vernacular: “reckon”, “taters”, phraseology like “turned me loose”
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