Unlikely Plac Essay, Research Paper
Sometimes a hero comes from the most unlikely place (Fhaner, 485). In the mid to late 1990 s, Hollywood and America witnessed the surprising rise of a new genre of films that would pave the way for a crop of cutting edge filmmakers, script writers, and actors. Free from the tight control and bureaucratic nonsense dealt from the big Hollywood studios, these independent films followed only the creator s guidelines; thus leaving much more room for creativity and original design. Indie films would soon gain a reputation for their artistic representation, cutting edge abilities, and, more importantly, straying away from big Hollywood names. This would also equate to a great amount of opportunity now available for new or unrecognized talent to move into the spotlight using independent labels as a medium. In 1996, one man managed to not only capture the pure essence of everything in the aforementioned, he also managed to propel himself and his career into the forefront of the film industry by writing, directing, and starring in the highly acclaimed movie, Sling Blade. This virtuoso player was the Arkansas native, Billy Bob Thornton. It may seem ironic that Sling Blade, a film so deeply entrenched in its Southern gothic themes and scenery, was directed by Thornton, a true-blooded Southerner. Billy Bob s deliberate cadences remind you just how nice it is to hear a Southern story told in a southern style (Jacobson, 104). The film has an inviting charm that draws you in and asks you to stay awhile. The irony lies in that there are relatively few Southern filmmakers which only adds to the significance of Thornton s success (Jacobson, 104). Since 1900, the American South has produced all the good music and a considerable portion of the best literature, yet in movies, the art form of the century, nonsoutherners tend to lead the pack, percentage wise (Jacobson, 104). Could be the speed of the form, says Billy Bob, but basically we talk too slow, Thornton comments on the topic of north vs. south in film directing (Jacobson, 104). Nonetheless, Sling Blade becomes a truth about the South all together. Its Southern characters with their sweaty armpits, grunts, and sex saturated talk not only shows Thornton s extensive characterization, but also the reality of it all (O Sullivan, 53). In Sling Blade, Thornton plays Karl Childers, a fortyish, mildly retarded man who, at the start of the film, is released from the Arkansas mental hospital to which he was committed when he was 12 for the murders of his mother and her estranged lover (Grant, 218). In the opening sequences, the audience instantly gets a feeling for Thornton s storytelling and scene-work. Accordingly, the audience must be informed of the current and past situation of Karl and what a more suitable way for Thornton to inform us than have a reporter from a local college come and interview Karl on the day he is being released. However, even though the audience learns that Karl is in the hospital for something reprehensible, the identity of Karl still remains a mystery. We see a patient sitting in profile in the foreground with another patient (J.T. Walsh) facing us, telling us a story (Kauffman, 28). Karl s identity is unknown, as either one of the two could plausibly be him. When the realization comes that Karl is the silent one, the recognition that this is a director who understands space and focus becomes apparent (Kauffmann, 28). Therefore, by being the silent one in the scene, Karl has forcefully entered (Kauffmann, 28). The young female reporter is ushered into the meeting room where the institution executive tells her that she may not ask Karl any questions, only listen. Immediately, the audience sees that Karl is an unusual man with unusual ways. Karl is brought into to the dimly lit room and begins his imperative monologue that strictly serves multiple purposes. He gives the chilling account of his past, starting with how he was the first born child to what seem to be abusive, fundamentalist, religious zealots, who interpreted their child s retardation to be a punishment from God (Fhaner, 485). They kept him in a shed outside the house where he slept in a hole in the dirt. As if this did not strike a particular chord in the audience right away, then maybe Karl s raspy, running motor-like voice would. Accordingly, he asserts that the other children generally made fun of him for his strange appearance and voice. This only segues into the most gripping part of Karl s opening monologue, the brutal murders. One day when he was 12, he saw a young man, who was especially fond of bullying him, having sex with his mother. Confused and irritated, Karl picked up a sling blade, which some might call a kaiser blade, and killed the man and then his mother for seemingly enjoying what the man was doing to her. After Karl finishes his story, the girl asks him what will become a very important question, Will you kill anyone again? The cogitative Childers responds with blunt sincerity, I don t reckon I need to kill anyone anymore, and with this line, Thornton almost foreshadows a predetermined fate for Karl. After the interview is over Karl is released and gathers up his possessions, a stack of books including the Bible and Lewis Carol s A Christmas Story. He returns to his hometown of Millsburg, a short bus ride from the institution. As Karl walks around the town, discovering his new found freedom, his unique mannerisms and nuances speak for themselves. However, after being institutionalized for 25 years, this new vast world that becomes an immediate reality is bewildering to the disadvantaged Karl. As a result, he returns to the institution asking if he can just stay there simply because there is no one and nothing of real substance for Karl in the real world. As was the case for James Whitmore and Morgan Freeman s characters in The Shawshank Redemption, Karl is a man who has been institutionalized to such a degree that he prefers confinement over freedom (Fhaner, 485-486). Fortunately, the head of the mental hospital knows a local repair shop owner in town who owes him a favor. Bill Cox (Rick Dial), the local owner and friend, provides Karl with not only a job as a repairman, but also a cot in the back of the store to sleep on (Willis, 145). Shortly after, Karl, while eating his tatters outside a local laundromat, meets the 12 year old Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) (Willis, 145). He helps him carry the boy s laundry back to his house and answers all of the boy s unassuming questions, such as, Why were you in a mental hospital? (Fhaner, 485). I killed some folks, Karl responds matter of factly, which undercuts the severity with humor simply because Karl is impeded and views life in such simple terms (Fhaner, 485). Within a short time, the two begin to cultivate a friendship. Karl s extreme handiness in repair not only satisfies Bill Cox, but also gains Karl acceptance and integration into this new society. Eventually, Karl accompanies Frank to Hooch s Dollar Store where Frank s mother is first introduced to Karl. Accordingly, a new character who is referred to preceding this scene is also introduced to the audience. Vaughan, played by John Ritter, is the gay store manager of the dollar store and a close friend to Linda, Frank s mother, and Frank (Willis, 145). After acting a bit apprehensive at first solely because of Karl s intimidating appearance, Linda takes Frank into the back room only to return with an offer to Karl to come and move in and live in their garage, which he accepts. It is now seen that Frank, because of the suicide and loss of his father at an early age, has started to strongly associate and bond with Karl. Similarly, Karl begins cultivating deeper ties with Frank because he is of the same age that Karl was when he committed the brutal murders and he relates to Frank s simple innocence and na ve nature. I like the way you talk, Frank always says to Karl who in return likes the way Frank talks, thus highlighting the reciprocating relationship that develops. Once Karl moves into the Wheatley home, the antagonist forewarned about is introduced. Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam) is the abusive, tyrannical boyfriend of Linda who is justly despised by Frank and Vaughan. Doyle can be studied as the stereotypical Arkansan redneck who drinks heavily and plays terrible country music in an even worse sounding hillbilly garage band. Accordingly, he is highly abusive in his treatment of Linda and Frank. With the new addition to the family, Doyle can do nothing but express his extreme disapproval with having some mental retard move in and steal his tools from the garage . As if he hadn t already shown enough malice towards Vaughan because of his sexual preference, Doyle shows no sign of tolerance for abnormality. Consequently, Frank hates Doyle because of the way he treats his mother and for the misplaced desire to pose as his father. Doyle s consummated depravity stoops to even lower levels as he has the audacity to throw hurtful jabs at Frank concerning his father and why he committed suicide. No wonder your daddy blew his head off .cus he had a little shit of a son like you, Hargraves shouts. Aside from antagonizing Frank, he constantly treats Linda as subservient to him, threatening to kill her if she ever left him; just as a typical ole Southern boy would treat his wife. Even after Linda and Frank kick Doyle out one night because he is completely drunk, Linda takes him back a few days later on account that he is a changed man. It slowly and painfully becomes evident that Doyle represents a significant conceptual memory from Karl s past. The bullish nature, the abusive language, the utter lack of respect for anyone else all seems to fit the same category. Throughout the film, Frank and Karl go to their special place located on a riverbank and the side of a mountain, with its isolation perfectly suiting them. It is there that the two share their most personal thoughts with each other and ultimately learn the most from each other. Frank talks incessantly about how much he wishes that Doyle would leave or else his mother and him could run away. However, he knows that the harsh reality lies in the fact that if they did leave, Doyle would find them and most likely inflict more pain on them. Therefore, the two are in a sense chained to Doyle because he strikes fear in Linda.
The final sequences manage to make the foreshadowed events reality without, however, necessarily divulging the certainty for the future. During the night, Karl enters the bedroom of Linda and Doyle holding a hammer, which provides for a very chilling silhouette to wake up to in the middle of the night. I want to get baptized, Karl grunts. The startled Linda placates Karl s immediate wishes by telling him that it can be done the next day but to go back to sleep; however still questioning the intent of the hammer. By use of some quick cutting, the audience sees the family, minus Doyle of course, watching observantly as Karl stands waist deep with a preacher in the muddy waters of the Mississippi. Karl gets dunked backwards into the water and cleanses and absolves himself from the sins he is about to commit; yet another use of foreshadowing. When the trio arrives home, Doyle asks Linda to leave to go get food, and Doyle sits Karl and Frank down and tyrannically tells Frank of his intentions to move into the house. Consequently, Frank must now live under his outrageously strict rules, thus indicating a future of intense discomfort. In addition, he gestures to Karl and clearly states that he is kicking him out. When Frank becomes livid, Doyle physically advances on him and for the first time in the entire film, the audience sees Karl act in physical brute force as he grabs Doyle s arm and tells him to never touch him again. Frank flees the house and Karl is not slowly behind him, as they meet in their secret place. Karl asks Frank to take his mother and stay at Vaughan s house that night because he warns that Doyle will be drinking later on and will be too dangerous to be around. The boy adheres to his advice as Linda and Frank stay at Vaughan s. That night, the scene opens with Karl sharpening a lawn mower blade, as his fate now becomes all too clear and familiar. Karl proceeds to go to the house where he kills Doyle, almost splitting his head into two. Afterwards, Karl slowly walks over to the phone and dials 911 (asking Doyle what number to call before he kills him) and tells the police to come to the house because I done killed a man. The film ends where it started with Karl staring blankly out the window of the same institution where he lived for 25 years before. The same man sits next to him, telling him a similar story of misogyny. However, this time Karl eventually stands up and sternly says that he doesn t ever want to hear any of his stories again. Among many of its strong points, Sling Blade s character development is most noteworthy. The characters possess a quiet irony that shines to convey Thornton s most poignant validations. Each character holds its own particular place in this film, harmonizing together to reveal a heroic gothic tale deeply rooted in Southern characters. The most prominent character throughout the entire film, who goes and must go through the most development, is Karl. It becomes immensely ironic that Karl is the textbook personification of the cold-blooded, unrepentant killer, yet we never fear him (Fhaner, 485). Accordingly, he is completely devoid of expressive emotion and shows no sign of remorse as his voice barely rises above a whisper through the duration of the film (Fhaner, 485). If you saw Karl, you d cross the street to avoid him, says Ritter (Schoemer, 81). By the end of the movie, you want to hug him. (Schoemer, 81). The character development of Karl is extraordinary as the man experiences love and moral awakening despite his handicaps and memories of a horrifying childhood (Grant, 218). By the end of the film, he becomes exonerated as a moral saint whose work was to protect Frank and Linda. Despite his acts of violence, Karl executes his plan solely for the benefit of the boy and his mother. Certainly juxtaposed from one another are Karl and Doyle. On one hand, Karl is a gentle, morally assertive man who serves to better Frank in anyway possible; ultimately giving up his freedom for it. Whenever Frank swears or talks in a reprehensible way, Karl is always quick to gently chastise him, thus reiterating his moral preservation. Although Karl spends the film discovering the meaning and depth of his own morality, he is quick to look after Frank s character. On the other hand, Doyle is swimming in his own moral degradation. He can t possible be a father figure to Frank simply because he doesn t do anything to build his character or even his own. He constantly swears around Frank with little regard to his innocent age. Furthermore, his abusive, alcoholic nature by no means sets any kind of example for the child. Irony lies however, in the fact that even though Doyle is the most abusive man in the text of the film, we never see him holding a weapon (Fhaner, 486). His weapons, as opposed to Karl s, are scornful words (Fhaner, 486). Therefore embodying the idiosyncratic redneck ideal, Doyle shows how dangerous small minds can be (Fhaner, 486). Thornton s portrayal of Karl Childers, although it did not win him an academy award, is exceptional. The transformation is not done with makeup or electronic deception. Thornton convinces the audience that he is interested in Karl as a human being and not in showing how cleverly he can play a slow-speaking, slow-moving man (Kauffmann, 28). He makes a conviction of someone resident inside Karl (Kauffmann, 28). Hence all of these aspects are part of an individual, and not a collection of effects (Kauffmann, 28). Thornton slides right into the large caliber performances given by Tom Hanks in Forest Gump and Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. His slouched hunchback and slow deliberate walk, unparalleled by a fixed gaze and frozen, tight-lipped grimace give Karl a body language that cannot be taught in any acting class (Fhaner, 486). This poignant, complicated character came to Thornton on the set of 1987 s The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (Corliss, 76). It was hot, and I had a conductor s uniform on with a collar up to here. My part wasn t going well and at lunch I started looking around on the set and started thinking everyone else around me was a real actor and I was a nobody. I started making faces at myself in the mirror and started talking in that voice. I looked so goofy. Then I came up with that monologue, with the voice. I thought it was a pretty good character, Billy Bob recounts upon the creation of Karl (Corliss, 76). No doubt that Thornton would be about-face if back in 87, someone were to tell him that later on down the road, Miramax and Harvey Weinstein would buy the film from the Shooting Gallery Production label for a cool $10 million (Jacobson, 102). Of course, there is much more than Billy Bob, the actor. There is Billy Bob, parts 2 and 3, the screenplay writer and the director. This Arkansas native, who grew up devoid of indoor plumbing and electricity, is coined by his good friend and mentor, Robert Duvall (who wrote, directed and starred in The Apostle and has a cameo in Sling Blade) to be the hillbilly Orson Welles (Jacobson, 100). As a director, Thornton holds true to this claim with Sling Blade as direct evidence. Through the technique of shooting in color but using the effect of black and white, Thornton achieved his faded colors so relevant to setting his tone and setting for the movie (Kauffmann, 29). His contrast between the acuity of his direction and Karl s state of being is quite sharp and important to his success of direction and performance (Kauffmann, 29). Accordingly, through his long, straightforward and subtly absorbing takes, Thornton demands respect for all of his characters (Grant, 219). Thornton s script (as if this guy couldn t do it all!) is flawless, as the story is so rooted and so immediate. Apparently the Academy felt similarly, as Thornton was awarded an Oscar for his best-adapted screenplay. What started as a monologue performed on stage, Thornton transformed the idea into a 23 minute short film entitled Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, directed by George Hickenlooper (Grant, 218). A few years later, the entire length film was adapted and the short served its purpose as the beginning of the film, where Karl talks to the young reporter and gives his monologue bringing the audience up to date (Grant, 218). The script does far more than follow the course of some lives, but instead unlocks a new brand of Southern film. It becomes a story about friendship, moral awakening, and the endearing sense of knowledge acquired through the triumph of morality. The seriousness of the film is masterfully undercut with humor everywhere. John Ritter s character is a bit quirky and manages to relieve the dismal tension of bloodshed and abuse. Accompanying the film beautifully however, is Daniel Lanois music. Its Southern guitars and passionate resonance keeps the tone steady (Kauffmann, 29).It is undeniable that Billy Bob Thornton is a creative genius. He not only has that Southern sophistication of the heart, but also raw talent that can t be substituted. He created a film on a low budget, with medium hopes and aspirations, and watched it transform into one of the year s best films. How s that for luck? Try creativity on a multi-talented level. Thornton is a walking symbol of the South and his films are a product of that. Who would have guessed that Billy Bob Thornton a redneck hillbilly from rural Arkansas, the man nominated by Joe-Bob Briggs for a Drive-In Academy Award as the whiny husband actor, would be standing tall with the release of Sling Blade, a movie he wrote, directed and starred in (Corliss, 76). It all goes back to the same point, for Karl, and for Billy Bob: sometimes a hero truly does come from the most unlikely place (Fhaner, 485).