Study Guide

Sling Blade

Sling Blade Introduction


Release Year: 1996

Genre: Drama

Director: Billy Bob Thornton

Writer: Billy Bob Thornton

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakum, Lucas Black, John Ritter


Mmhmm. We reckon you're here to read about Sling Blade, mmhmm. Some people call it Sling Blade, but other people call it…Sling Blade. Mmhmm. Because that's the title of the movie, mmhmm.

Ahem. Excuse us. We had something in our throat. Let's start over.

Hello. You must be here to read about the film Sling Blade. Written, directed, and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade tells the story of Karl Childers, a man who committed a violent crime as a child, spent his life in a mental institution, and is suddenly released back into the real world. There, he finds a friend in a young boy named Frank, who welcomes Karl into his home. However, Frank's mom's boyfriend, Doyle, is a cruel man who makes Karl consider committing murder yet again.

Now you know what the titular sling blade is used for, and it ain't cutting grass.

While not as successful as the blockbuster Forrest Gump, another 90s-era film about a mentally challenged man from the South, Sling Blade made Billy Bob Thornton a household name. Thornton would win an Academy Award for Best Writing and Best Adapted Screenplay, and soon after, he would star as Bad Santa and, more memorably, start wearing Angelina Jolie's blood in a vial around his neck.

Hmm, maybe that's why vampire movies got so popular around that time.

Anyway, Sling Blade also features the late, great John Ritter, as well as Lucas Black in one of his first roles, as young Frank. Only fourteen when the movie was released, Black would go on to star in many of the Fast and the Furious things. Sling Blade is less fast and less furious and more slow and more laborious, but that doesn't make it a bad film. Just a different one.

These days, Sling Blade is remembered more for the character of Karl than it is for the plot of the movie, or the critical acclaim it received. With a unique haircut, a simple wardrobe, and a distinctive mumbling, grumbling Southern drawl, Karl was often imitated but never duplicated. Over twenty years later, Sling Blade remains a unique vision from a talented filmmaker. And we reckon it's still a mighty good film, mmhmm.

Ahem. We mean, it's great. Check it out.

  

What is Sling Blade About and Why Should I Care?

Hollywood trends come and go more quickly than its celebrities join and quit Instagram. In the 2010s, we have superhero films. In the 2000s, it was vampires and werewolves. And in the 1990s, the hottest trend was intellectual disability.

Here are just a few films that tackled this issue:

  • John Malkovich played Lenny in a version of Of Mice and Men in 1992.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio played a young mentally challenged man in What's Eating Gilbert Grape in 1993.
  • Tom Hanks played Forrest Gump, the most famous intellectually impaired man ever, in 1994.
  • And the trend hit its low point in 1999 with Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi in The Other Sister, which Roger Ebert criticized as using "mental retardation as a gimmick, a prop and a plot device" (source).

As Forrest Gump might say, these movies are like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you're going to get.

These films often simplified their mentally challenged characters. Forrest Gump happily bumbled through football games, ping-pong matches, and the Vietnam War. Lenny just wants to hug you and squeeze you and call you George. Sling Blade, however, tackles mental issues by showing their complexities within the person himself, not just in the so-called "normal" people around him.

Karl seems simple on the outside. He has a bad haircut (like Forrest Gump) and simple coveralls for clothes (like Lenny). But inside, he is conflicted. The true struggle of Sling Blade isn't Karl vs. Doyle, who sees Karl as a "humped-over retard." It's between Karl and himself.

Karl can only express himself in monosyllabic words, grunts, and physical actions. Perhaps the perpetual grimace on his face isn't just Resting Karl Face. Maybe it's his outward frustration at being unable to express his inner turmoil. Sling Blade's Karl isn't one note. He's an entire box of intellectually challenged chocolates, and people can't look past the wrapper on the box.

Subtlety is easily overlooked, which may be one reason Sling Blade is all but forgotten today. Perhaps we'll see a Sling Blade resurgence, but who knows what kind of trend we can look forward to in 2020? Intellectually challenged superhero werewolves, perhaps?

Trivia

The Frostee Cream boy is played by famous film director Jim Jarmusch. He wrote and directed Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive—and he dispensed ice cream and French fries to the residents of rural Arkansas. (Source)

Besides French-fried potaters, Karl loves biscuits with mustard. Pillsbury's recipe for honey mustard biscuits would be the perfect thing to make if you ever decided to visit Karl in the mental hospital. (Source)

Lucas Black, who was around twelve when Sling Blade was filmed, first saw Billy Bob Thornton walk and heard him talk as Karl during their first scene together at the laundromat. The young actor just rolled with it and has continued doing just that during his acting career. (Source)

To get Karl's distinctive walk just right, Billy Bob Thornton put crushed glass in his shoes to force a limp. Did he hum that Annie Lennox song to himself, too? (Source)

Sling Blade Resources

websites

High-Speed Sling Blade
Harvey Weinstein paid $10 million for Sling Blade, so he's keeping this website up until the end of the Internet.

BOOK-OR-TV-ADAPTATIONS

Some Call It a Script, But We Call It a Screenplay
If you need to know exactly where all the "mmhmms" go, purchase the Sling Blade screenplay.

ARTICLES-AND-INTERVIEWS

Mental House Rock
One of Thornton's inspirations was Elvis Presley. Does Karl have a hip swivel he's keeping secret?

Hillbilly Harry Potter
Karl's story was based on a true one Thornton tells in this interview about a kid forced to live in a shed.

Short Cuts
Due to some Taylor Swift-esque bad blood between Thornton and George Hickenlooper, Thornton tried to keep his original short film a secret after the feature-length film's success.

VIDEO

Salute the Shorts
The whole short film is on YouTube.

Sharpening the Blade
The making of the short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade is chronicled in the even shorter film with a longer title "The Making of Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade."

Return of the Blade
Thirteen years later, at the Sling Blade reunion, we still like listening to Billy Bob talk.

Yoakam? We Hardly Know Him
Dwight Yoakam talks about his wild journey from music to acting.

AUDIO

Some Call Him Prince, and Some Call Him a Symbol
In September 2016, NPR talked to Dwight Yoakum about Sling Blade, Prince, and bluegrass. One of those things is not like the other.

Billy Bob's History
Terry Gross interviews Sling Blade, who sometimes goes by "Billy Bob Thornton" on Fresh Air.

Tear Jerker
A bunch of blubbering crybabies put Sling Blade on a list of movies that make men cry.

images

Sunshine and Rainbows
This version of the poster makes Sling Blade look awfully heartwarming.