TWO STARS - Unsettling
Trudging through the tumultuous terrain of Thornton’s “Sling Blade” is morally exhausting. But as a film it is an excellent example of the difference between a movie review and our social and spiritual commentary.
If we were only reviewers of film, we would be impressed. The visual and auditory composition is a masterpiece. From the opening scenes in which a sexual sociopath irritatingly drags his chair the length of the mental ward to emotionally harass a fellow patient, to the moonlit ripples in the pond reflecting on the lead character’s face as he considers the ramifications of murder, to the image of a bridge and the implications of using it for either suicide or to cross the barriers into a new life, this is a dramatic and psychological masterpiece.
However, it is a morally debilitating film. Rather than presenting any transcendent morality which has the fortitude to overcome evil with good, the tale limits its options to those which a mentally and morally retarded person can assess. As the film itself proclaims at the end of its tale, “the world is too large” for such solutions.
The film’s hero is Karl (Billy Bob Thornton) who is a middle-aged, retarded man who has spent his life since the age of 12 in a mental hospital.
As Karl tells his tale to a journalism intern, we discover that he is not only the victim of nature’s injustice as a mentally retarded person, but he is also the victim of the toxic cruelty of his parents.
Living for his first 12 years in a shed in the back yard, Karl’s early life included the horrific task of being his father’s accomplice in the killing of his little brother. Born prematurely, Karl was given the living newborn to throw in the trash. Though he responds instead by burying him alive in a shoe box, this early message that murder is the solution to life’s problems become, a central moral theme in Karl’s life.
At age 12, he thought his mother was being raped, so he picked up a sling blade and killed the rapist. When his mother yelled in anger at him, he then realized that his mother is an adulteress and in anger kills her as well. This action caused him to be sentenced to the mental hospital until his release decades later, when the film picks up his story.
In his attempt to live our in the larger world, he is incapable of the moral thinking such a life of freedom requires. This fact is played out in his attempt to care for a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) and his mother.
Frank, whose own father committed suicide, is longing for someone to be a father-figure in his life. Instead he, along with his mother, is being tyrannized by her live-in boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakum). When Karl observes this fact, he returns once more to the only solution he has utilized in the past. Karl kills Doyle.
This solution is presented in such a manner as to infer that his act of murder was in fact an act of love for his 12 year-old friend. At their secret spot in the woods where they go to share their secrets and fears, it is obvious that Frank’s anger against his tormentor is rising to the point of violence. Thus, for Karl to kill Doyle saves the young boy from the same fate as his - of being locked away for murder.
But that is what leaves the film so unsettling. In a large world of real cruelty, the solution cannot be to leave retarded persons to their own solutions. Whether that retardation is mental or emotional, people need moral and spiritual guidance. Someone needs to assist not only Karl, but this young mother whose own form of emotional retardation has imprisoned her and her son in an abusive relationship.
As commentators on the social and spiritual values presented in this film, we were left unsettled and fatigued. As we climb deeper into the depths of the character’s despair, we long for a solution which will bring dignity to their souls and light to their darkness.
Instead, we recoil as our hero deliberately sunders the head of Doyle with a calmly sharpened lawn mower blade.
And what makes the film particularly unsettling is that in the limited world of this film, this act was presented as an act of heroic love.