A young boy helps an outcast protagonist find a place in the world and a fresh opportunity for a meaningful life. It's the plot of many a film, including Sling Blade, by writer-director-star-Oscar bait Billy Bob Thornton. Sling Blade heralded a well-worthwhile resurgence of dramatic realism in film, but also leans heavily on the hoary cliche that the idiot savant man-child can, through his noble example, teach us how to live. If this is the cost of many years of great Billy Bob performances, so be it.
Sling Blade floated to the top of the cinematic stew due to good word-of-mouth, a succession of critics' awards, and Oscar attention. Thornton stars as Karl Childers, a mildly retarded murderer about to be released after a 25-year stay in a mental institution. Childers murdered his mother and her lover in a fit of confusion and intense moral indignation, but now seems harmless enough, introverted in the face of the big world outside.
The film tracks Karl's process in this forgotten world, including a job as a repairman and his deep friendship with a non-judgmental boy named Frank (Lucas Black of TVs erstwhile American Gothic) and his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday). While the film is a star project for the talented Thornton, it also sets the stage for a crackling acting ensemble: Dwight Yoakam as Linda's part passive, mostly aggressive boyfriend Doyle, John Ritter as her well-meaning gay friend Vaughan, and even, briefly, Robert Duvall as a face from Karl's past.
Canerday is brilliantly understated, and Black's pure performance cuts through the film like sunlight through the haze. The dark tone and muted scheme set by Thornton and production designer Clark Hunter disguises many of the film's minor flaws by sheer willpower of mood.
First and last, the picture falls to Thornton, and for the most part he does not disappoint. His heavily-mannered Karl, if occasionally suspect, is a boldly drawn and tightly acted character, Thornton's possession of him is genuine. As writer and first-time director, Thornton has slightly less command, but the quibbles (such as the length and ultimate predictability of the screenplay and the occasional distracting use of music) pale against the overriding ambience and talent on display.