Sling Blade (1996) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)


An interesting character study - a story which invites us to speculate on the nature of right and wrong.

Carl is released from a mental hospital after 25 years because the legal procedures say it is time. It is clear that he should not be released in the sense that he doesn't seem to have any way to function outside the hospital. He knows absolutely nobody on the outside, and his mental capacity is limited. That alone would be bad enough, but the greatest danger is not the one he poses to himself, but society. 25 years ago he killed his mother and her lover. He killed the man, a local bully, because he thought the man was raping his mother. Then he killed his mother when he figured out it wasn't rape and she enjoyed having sex with the guy who was always taunting him.

After 25 years, Carl seems to have figured out that his actions were a tad extreme, but we have to ask ourselves, "if it took him 25 years to puzzle that out, what's going to happen if a similar but not identical situation occurs in his life? Will he act first, then figure out he was wrong after another 25 years of meditation?" 

At first we think that his story must soon lead to tragedy, but the script takes us in unexpected directions. A compassionate doctor finds Carl a job (he's good with mechanical things), and the employer lets Carl stay in a room behind the garage. Then a fatherless boy forms a bond with Carl, and the boy's good-hearted mother invites Carl to stay at their place. Carl is getting paid, getting fed, and even has sort of a date! 


But trouble is a-brewin'. The good-hearted mother seems to have a variation of battered-woman syndrome, at least that seems to be the only possible explanation for why such a nice person seems to stay with a total redneck bigot scumbag who berates her and bullies her son as well as  her homosexual best friend and now her mentally incapable lodger. (Actually, this seems to me to be a serious weakness in the script. It doesn't seem possible that the mother could stay with this guy, but I suppose nicer women have stayed with cruddier guys, so you just have to accept it, I guess)

Carl likes the boy and his mother, and the boyfriend's bullying must lead to an inevitable bloody confrontation. You can pretty much figure that out 90 minutes before it happens, but the simplistic plot is pretty much irrelevant here.

The complexity in the situation is that Carl seems to us at first to be a hero. The script meticulously creates a hatred between the audience and the bully, so when Carl butchers him, we feel good. Then we feel sick inside, because we realize that the bully has never hurt anyone, and the mother really seems to love him. The guy just has a serious alcohol problem. That's certainly bad, and the guy is a bad dude, but we can't murder people just for being drunk and obnoxious. Can we? The trick of the script is that it makes us believe, briefly, that Carl did the right thing, and then to realize that we've been lured into his point of view, which is outside the normal morality of human civilization. Carl still doesn't understand anything more than he did when he killed his mother and his mother's lover. If somebody seems to present a threat to you in some way, kill him. He has not learned of more moderate means to respond to threats.

This is the kind of movie that people talk about. Did Carl do the right thing? Did the bully deserve to die? If not, why did it make me feel good when Carl killed him? Are we, with our lip-service respect for the codes of civilization, still so close to Carl's level?

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterbox, 1.85:1

  • no features

Carl knew that he was going to do something which would place him right back into the hospital. Just before the murder, he gave his money to the mother's friend, and he said his goodbyes. Part of him realized that he was doing something that people would disapprove of at a level so deep that he'd be re-committed. But he didn't care about that. He was just as happy to be inside the hospital, maybe happier, and he thought he could relieve his friends of their worries and get back into the hospital at the same time, so in his thought process it was a win-win situation, and the movie will draw you into his thought process.

Billy Bob Thornton wrote, directed, and starred as Carl. The film has been universally praised, and lifted Thornton from obscurity to household name status. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: about three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 85, Maltin 3.5/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 100% positive reviews

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.1 (top 150 of all time), Apollo users 88/100 
  • With their dollars ... it wasn't a smash, hit, but it took in $24  million 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-.

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