When I was in film school, I had the privilage of seeing the first 20 minutes of 'Sling Blade' before it ever hit theaters. Our instructor must have pulled some strings to make it happen, I'm not entirely sure, but it was worth it. Regardless, I don't remember any time before that day that I had been so fully involved in a film. I became completely lost in everything I was seeing on the big screen, it was like I was in some sort of trance. To this day, there are very few other film going experiences that I've had where I was this mesmerized. When the film finally hit theaters and I was able to see it in its entirety, I was not let down by what I saw. It had an amazingly strong 1st, 2nd and 3rd acts. It's a rare commodity these days to find a film like that. I eventually bought this on VHS and nearly wore out my copy of it. Years after that, I bought the 10th anniversary special edition DVD and in the number of times I've seen it over the years.... it still packs a mean left hook. Now what is it about this film that gives it such amazing lasting power? Why do the characters leap off the screen and live and breathe on their own? I, personally, think it as a perfect storm of passion, right script, right time, right cast and crew, etc. You can't plan and execute a film like this without some kind of divine intervention. What's kind of interesting is that it started out as a 25 minute short film with JT Walsh, Molly Ringwald and, or course, Billy Bob Thornton. Take a look at where it all began:
You could see the seed of genius in this original piece, but you feel, after watching it, that there is a lot more story to tell and I think that's what lead everyone to want to see more.
For those of you who haven't seen this film yet, let me give you the basic story. As you can see in the original short film, we start off in a home for people with special needs. This is where we first meet Carl. He's a unique man with a unique past. As he's being interviewed about his past, we soon become interested in his future. On his release date, he heads back to live in the town where he grew up. He is obviously a fish out of water and does his best to fit in with everyone else. Soon Carl meets a young boy named Frank. Frank is an independent boy whose mother works to support him and has an on again/off again alcoholic boyfriend. He's abusive, mean and makes no sincere apologies about it. Over time, Carl gets a job fixing lawnmowers, moves in with Frank and his family and slowly starts putting his life back together. Eventually it becames painfully obvious that Carl is possibly doomed to repeat history. Frank's mom and her best friend seem to tolerate the abuse, but Frank is doing his best to put an end to it. Meanwhile, Carl visits his estranged father and confronts him about his mistreatment of him growing up. Soon things begin to come to a slow boil and you can feel that things are going to hit a turning point. What happens in the third act is amazingly well done and is something that you just have to see. I refuse to detail what happens.... trust me, it's worth your time to see this film if you haven't already.
As much as I love this film, there is something about it that always makes it very difficult to watch. The Dwight Yoakam character of Doyle, the abusive, drunk boyfriend, reminds me of my brother. He is about as spot on perfect as you can get for an on screen version of what I dealt with growing up. (minus playing in a band) I, literally, almost had to stop watching the film the first time I saw it because of how realistic it felt to watch Doyle. The way he flips the switch between being a calm, gentle person to suddenly becoming a raging, violent person. He's either extremely bi-polar or really drunk.... or both. The funny thing is that he apologizes for his behavior after the fact. His apologies are anything but remorseful, in fact he makes you feel stupid and like it was your fault in the first place. I thought it was just the way my brother was, but I guess there are other people with that same talent, if you can call it that. In the end, did I feel like justice was served for Doyle? Did I live out some kind of sick fantasy? The answer is that I don't know. I'm not a judge and I don't think I ever would want to take it to the extreme that Carl does. It may have been a passing thought, but not a serious consideration to make it a reality. Everytime I watch this film, I know what I'm getting into and regardless of that, I still think this is one of the most amazing films ever committed to the screen. If the price of that is opening up old wounds, so be it.
I'm currently working on a finalized list of the 'Top 50 Films Of All Time' and this will be in those celebrated ranks. Granted, it may just be my own opinion and perhaps it's a bit skewed because of my past.... but I still think that this is an amazing piece of work. And based on the reviews I've read in the past, I don't think I'm entirely alone in my thinking. I believe that Billy Bob Thornton could pack up and leave Hollywood forever and this film would be his masterpiece, something everyone would remember him by. Like Orson Welles and 'Citizen Kane', this is what he'll be remembered for and will stand as a lasting testament to what he's capable of. It's a 5 out of 5 star film going experience and one that I feel everyone should take at some point. It's a fascinating character study of fictionalized people who seem to live and breathe on their own, outside of the film. That, to me, is a sign of good writing. When the thing that you create takes on a life of its own.... then it's something for the ages. Carl is an iconic character that has branched out beyond the walls of 'Sling Blade' and become a part of American pop culture. I just hope that no one gets the bright idea to make a sequel to this. If Billy Bob Thornton decides to follow this up sometime in the future, like Kevin Smith and 'Clerks 2', perhaps that'll be okay.... I kind of hope he doesn't though. All of that being said, I just have one final thing to say, "Thank you Mr. Thornton and thank you Carl, wherever you are." That is all.