"I Like the Way You Talk."

Sling Blade as Noir

By Jen Johans
*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

In the beginning of his review for Academy Award Winner Billy Bob Thornton’s amazingly
heartfelt southern gothic work,
Sling Blade Roger Ebert writes, “If Forrest Gump had been
written by William Faulkner, the result might have been something like Sling Blade.”  In
addition to writing some of the great classic American works, Faulkner was according to
James Naremore, a “noir novelist,” and he also points out “some of the classic film noirs
are set in the rural south,” (270).  In this moody film, Thornton plays Karl, a mentally
challenged man who killed his mother and her lover when he was only twelve years old.  
After twenty-five years in a state asylum, he is released from government custody and
finds the outside world more challenging than the one he’d encountered locked up with
rules and order.  Although it sounds gloomy, the film is filled with laughter and surprises
(look for fellow indie director Jim Jarmusch as the fast food worker who sells Karl his first
“French fried potaters”), although an undercurrent of danger persists throughout.

Gary Johnson from
Images Journal Online writes:

    One of the wonders of Sling Blade is how Thornton manages to take scenes
    that otherwise might be pathetic and make us laugh. It's a gentle brand of
    laughter that he evokes because we're not really laughing at Karl; instead,
    we're laughing at the crazy circumstances that put Karl out in the world
    again without really preparing him for what he'll find. Thornton also shows
    the absurdities at work in a world where practically everyone Karl meets
    talks about wanting to kill someone, where Karl easily outsmarts his
    "normal" coworker at an engine repair shop, and where Karl easily reads
    more books than most other people in the movie.

In a Boo Radley like portrayal, the endearing Karl befriends a young boy named Frank,
acted with startling maturity by Lucas Black.  Frank’s well-meaning but weak mother is in
an abusive relationship with a monster named Doyle, played with menace by Thornton’s
friend and country singer Dwight Yoakam.  Predictably, Karl ends up killing Doyle at the
end of the film in order to protect the boy and his mother but it seems a fitting bookend to
Karl’s path and at the end of the film, in a subtle way, Thornton lets us know that Karl has
indeed changed on his journey.  Yoakam’s performance was so horrifying that the singer
reported he knew he’d done a good job when even his mother remarked that she was glad
Thornton’s Karl had killed him, according to IMDb.

The film, shot in just 24 days with a budget of 1.3 million was inspired by Thornton’s short
Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade.  According to research online, legendary director
Billy Wilder encouraged Thornton to write himself a showcase for his odd appearance and
personality and it proved excellent advice as with the success of the film (after Miramax
purchased the rights for 10 million) caused the director to be “suddenly transformed into
a celebrity,” (Naremore, 73).  The film is extremely personal and the performances seem
quite natural, including that of John Ritter as a gay man who along with Karl is an
outsider in the community.  Thornton wrote the part specifically for his good friend Ritter
and his scenes with Karl are equally important to his with Black’s in illustrating the
humanity of the character to the audience. In order to “attain the shuffling gait of his
character,” (Riley, 81), Thornton put crushed glass in his shoes and his sensitive
portrayal of a man with mental disability earned kudos from the disabled community.  
Charles A. Riley II wrote the following in
Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for

    When it comes to accuracy and understanding the feelings of people with
    disabilities, the achievement of this film is in part its attention to the
    feelings of people with disabilities about how they are perceived. (83)

When I first saw
Sling Blade, I never would have considered it to be categorized as noir
but my thoughts changed after reading James Naremore’s analysis in
More Than Night
when he states that although the film “was not marketed or reviewed as a noir… it easily
could have been,” even though it was “originally intended as a sort of regional art movie
for the video stores,” (270).  The film, according to Naremore is “not without flaws… but it
creates an unusual moral fable, rendered in an austere, sometimes amusingly digressive
style,” (272).   In labeling it as noir-inspired, Naremore continues:

    [Sling Blade] tells an Oedipal story involving murder; it deals with a
    character who cannot escape his past; and it uses low-key lighting to
    generate a gothic mood.  If nothing else, it shows that familiar motifs of
    noir can be given new and mildly unorthodox applications.  Perhaps for
    that reason, and perhaps because it was something of a populist movie, it
    became a surprise hit.
(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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