Atmosphere is everything in Sling Blade, the 1996 passion project by Billy Bob Thornton, who wrote, directed, and starred in this tale of a mentally handicapped man finally released from a state institution after committing a horrific murder decades ago. No one’s completely sure whether Karl (Thornton) will act out in violence again — he’s quiet and seems harmless, but if the circumstances aligned themselves just right… well, no one’s quite sure what would happen.
As the film unfolds, it’s not too difficult to see what lies ahead for its characters, but that doesn’t make Sling Blade any less fulfilling as it succeeds marvelously as an intimate portrait of a truly gentle and caring man and the small town Arkansas community where he tries to build a life back up for himself. Thornton’s golden-hued visual palette, his performance that is both assured and heartbreaking, and Daniel Lanois’ gorgeous score come together to create a truly memorable cinematic world.
The story is familiar in its ideas, and could’ve become trite, but Thornton’s Academy Award-winning script subverts those tendencies with pitch perfect idiosyncrasies that avoid parody and little off-kilter moments that take the film out of the realm of the ordinary. Dwight Yoakam’s villainous jerk is perhaps the lone exception as a character who feels a bit obvious, but his performance is magnetic enough that it gives us a little hint of why anyone puts up with him.
Above all, it’s the atmosphere that sticks with you after watching Sling Blade, even more than Thornton’s excellent performance and standout supporting appearances from John Ritter and a young Lucas Black as the boy that Karl befriends in the town. Thornton’s direction is also striking, as he allows the camera to linger often, resulting in long takes that continue to reveal information even after it seems the shot has run its course.
Sling Blade will almost certainly be the crown jewel of Thornton’s career; lately, he’s kind of fell into a rut of playing the lowlife asshole, but he’s absolutely capable of bigger and better things, as seen here.
The Blu-ray Disc
Sling Blade is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There’s very little to complain about here, as picture sharpness and clarity looks close to flawless throughout. The gold-tinged palette that Thornton opted for is represented faithfully here, with a great deal of shadows and black hues which look extremely deep. Occasionally, brighter colors will pop out surprisingly, but this visual presentation’s strength lies in the rich earthy tones which look fantastic.
The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby DTS-HD, and is a perfectly adequate mix for this dialogue-centric film. Lanois’ beautiful and diverse score is the highlight of the audio, as it comes through with perfect clarity.
This Blu-ray is packed with extras, although all were previously available and remain in standard definition. Several very long featurettes include a retrospective of Thornton’s career in Hollywood, a Bravo profile of him, and a roundtable discussion with several actors and a producer. Shorter featurettes include interviews with Thornton, Robert Duvall, whose single scene in the film is quite striking, and composer Lanois. This is definitely the highlight of the special features as Thornton talks about what he looked for in the score of his film and Lanois, who is a solo artist along with being a prominent producer for U2 and Bob Dylan (among others), explains his process in creating it. This is one of the unique modern film scores, and this is a fascinating look at its creation.
Also included is some fairly uninteresting rehearsal footage on the set and a feature commentary by Thornton.
The Bottom Line
Sling Blade is a thoughtful, emotional and engrossing film. It’s got so many things going in its favor that it’s easy to overlook its flaws and the obvious trajectory of its plot and simply enjoy the experience.