If you were going to a mental institution and you could bring only one book, what would you bring? We'd probably bring one of the ten longest books in human history, because we wouldn't be leaving anytime soon.
Karl has three books in the mental hospital. We imagine he acquired them during his stay, but we know they are the only possessions he takes with him he leaves, besides the clothes on his back. We'll let Karl give us the inventory.
KARL: One of 'em's a Bible, one of 'em's a book on Christmas, one of 'em's on how to be a carpenter.
If we didn't actually see three different books, we'd think he was talking about the same one. In fact, he's talking about the Bible, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and a helpful book on carpentry. But in a way, all of these books have Jesus in common. Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Jesus was a carpenter. And he's in the Bible somewhere, right?
What's with this common theme in Karl's little library? Is this because Karl has been studying the Bible, or is it because he fancies himself a savior, like Jesus?
Before murdering Doyle, Karl gives Frank his books and a "bookmarker." It says "You Will Be Happy." That adds to the Karl-as-savior analysis: he thinks he is sacrificing himself for the good of Frank.
Frank, take the books, and Jesus, take the wheel.
Southern cuisine is defined by being simple but delicious (and artery-clogging). Karl's favorite food falls into the simple category for sure.
What is it? French-fried potaters, as Karl is known to say it. It's almost as fun to hear him say it as it is to eat them. Who doesn't like French fries? Okay, most people don't have them as their entire meal, the way Karl does, but at least he's getting a full serving of vegetable. Yes, we said vegetable. It's a lot, but it's a lot of one vegetable.
And it might be the only vegetable Karl eats. His other favorite food is biscuits with mustard. We haven't tried that delicacy yet.
Karl is easy to please, but the people who care about him are comfortable letting him have the foods he likes. They don't try and force him to try new things or to diversify his diet. Bill Cox brings Karl a big ol' basket of fries for lunch, and Linda makes Karl biscuits for breakfast, and nothing else.
Karl appreciates it.
KARL: You been real good to me too. It ain't everybody that'd make biscuits in the middle of the night. You and that boy's given me a good feeling.
After killing Doyle, Karl calmly sits at the kitchen table and eats a biscuit. For Karl, it's the simple pleasures that are the important ones. These yummy bites are his final meal as a free man. He enjoys his favorite food one last time before returning to the mental hospital—that biscuit-less land of padded walls.
The song "Lean on Me" isn't in this movie—maybe they couldn't afford the rights to it?—but it would be a good song for the scene in which Karl helps Frank carry sacks of laundry. Here are the lyrics we like for this scene:
If there is a load you have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
These lines sum up Karl and Frank's friendship in a nutshell. Karl helps Frank bear what he can't on his own. We're not saying that he can't-can't, because Frank has been carrying the laundry for a while. But Karl makes the trip easier.
The same goes for Frank and Doyle. Frank is strong enough to handle Doyle's abuse, but Karl believes that Frank shouldn't have to do that. Karl takes the pressure off Frank by standing between him and Doyle.
Karl's helpful nature also plays out in his profession: he's a fix-it man. Symbolism doesn't get more in-your-face obvious than that.
Karl's desire to fix things underlies most of what he does throughout the film. He thinks that by murdering Doyle, for example—a task he accomplishes with a simple tool, as if he were just repairing a small engine—he will "fix" Frank's life. And before killing Doyle, Karl fixes Linda's washing machine so that Frank won't have to carry laundry again.
Karl sees himself in purely utilitarian terms. He is a man who can wield simple tools, whether those tools are for repair or destruction. He doesn't seem to understand that Frank values him for more than just what he can do. Frank appears to value Karl for who he is, and that's more than a repairman.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary world at the beginning of Sling Blade is a mental hospital. That might not seem ordinary, but it's not uncommon in movies. Lots of films see rooms filled with crazy people as normal, like Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and anyone movie with Adam Sandler.
In the movies we mentioned above, like Girl, Interrupted, being committed to a mental ward turns out to be quite the adventure. In Karl's case, it's getting out of the institution and into the real world that is his call to adventure, and it's an intimidating one.
After only one day outside the (padded) walls, Karl wants to return to the hospital. Unfortunately, those doors are one-way only, and he isn't allowed back in.
Karl's mentor is Frank, a Southern boy about the age of Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. Frank gives Karl a purpose. Sure, the purpose is originally carrying a sack of laundry, but the two of them soon become real friends.
Karl initially stays in the back room of the repair shop. It isn't long before Frank invites him to stay in his family's garage, and Karl accepts. When he is welcomed into Frank's home, his real test begins.
Karl has been in a mental institution for the majority of his life. In there, it's easy to write everyone off as the same: crazy. In the real world, Karl has to rely on his own judgment regarding who to trust as a friend, and who might be an enemy. Karl is a friendly guy, so he accepts everyone in town as a friend—Linda, Vaughan, Bill, the Frostee Cream boy—and views Doyle, the only outsider in the group, as an enemy.
The longer Karl spends with Doyle, the more he dislikes him. Karl worries that Doyle is dangerous for Frank and Linda. However, Karl has to grapple with his own changing and evolving ideas of morality. Is murder wrong? Is it ever justified? These are the questions Karl must answer.
Karl visits his childhood home for the first time since he was arrested after the murder of his mother and her boyfriend, a crime that occurred when he was a child. Inside, he finds his father and confronts him. Karl tells his father that he was wrong to treat him the way he did, but he sees that his father will never apologize, repent, or ask for forgiveness. Karl says he considered killing his father, but seeing that the old coot is about to die soon, he realizes that the nasty dude can no longer hurt anyone.
Whew, we need a breather after that one.
We should rename this one "seizing the sling blade." Karl has himself baptized. Then he makes arrangements for Linda and Frank to be out of the house that night. Finally, he sharpens his blade to kill Doyle.
Karl murders Doyle. This road is leading straight back to the mental hospital.
Karl ends up back where he started: the mental hospital. It's a good outcome for him, though. He wanted to be back there, and he is there believing that Linda and Frank will be better off now that Doyle is dead. Our question: Who has to clean Doyle's blood off Linda's sofa?
Have you ever had a friend take a bite of a dish, spit it out, and then say, "This is awful, you have to try it?" Karl's journey into the real world is like that—except for the asking a friend to try it part, because he has no friends. Karl sampled the real world and hated it, so he's returned to the one place he feels safe.
If Karl's life were a series of books, it would be bookended by his stay at the local mental hospital. The film opens there, and it ends there. When it opens, it looks bleak. Its residents shuffle around in drab clothing. The walls are plain. It's quiet. Being there would drive us crazy instead of helping us recover our mental health.
But we weren't raised isolated from society, sleeping in a shed as Karl was. To Karl, the mental hospital might as well be the Four Seasons. He can read whenever he wants, he gets a variety of meals (although they must not serve biscuits, which should be a crime), and the lighting is fantastic. The hospital is his home, and Karl wants to return there at the end of the film because he's homesick.
Karl's life is just like the John Mellencamp song "Small Town." Karl was born in a small town. And he lives in a small town. Well, in a mental institution near a small town, but stick with us. His parents live in the same small town—well, the parent he didn't murder, anyway.
Karl's job is so small town, it provides little opportunity. But considering Karl has had zero opportunity for his entire life, little opportunity is a big upgrade.
Karl was educated in a small town. He was taught the fear of Jesus in a small town—which, frankly, really screwed him up. And he'll probably die in a small town, or back in the mental institution near that small town.
Millsburg, Arkansas is a small place, but it fits Karl, who has small thoughts and small dreams. We're not insulting him. It's true. The man's biggest pleasure in life is a cardboard tray of French fries. And he likes it that way.
The town has a few interesting places within it—like the mental hospital, where Karl is institutionalized. It's somewhere within short driving distance of Millsburg, and it's used to misdirect us as we rely on our preconceived notions of mental hospitals being dangerous places. When Karl is interviewed about the crime he committed, he's lit as if he's Hannibal Lecter. Out in town, though, we learn that Karl is much gentler than that sadistic cannibal.
Another significant place in Millsburg is Frank's "secret place." It's a little clearing in the woods, near a river, where Frank goes when he wants to be alone. The more Doyle is around, the more Frank wants to be alone. Frank shows Karl how much he trusts him by bringing him to the secret place.
It's in that secret place that Frank and Karl share their innermost thoughts. They talk about Doyle, about Karl's crime, about Karl's dead brother, about violence, murder, and suicide. It's heavy stuff.
It's also an unusual place for Karl to be. He's never been a man to have that much private space to himself. He grew up in a shack, after all, and he was raised, for lack of a better word, in a mental hospital. The secret place is like the whole wide world to Karl—it's big, and the thoughts his thinks there are scary. Frank is comfortable going to that place, but in the end, Karl decides to leave it and keep his secrets to himself.
If Sling Blade were a novel, it would be written in first person from Karl's perspective, and Billy Bob Thornton's typewriter would have a broken "m" key from all of Karl's mumbling.
The tight perspective on Karl means that Thornton himself is in every scene. We never see what happens elsewhere, meaning that we only know what Karl sees and what he is told. That makes us wonder, are Frank and Vaughan reliable sources of information?
Karl is very simple. He isn't going to analyze what he is told; instead he'll take it at face value. Vaughan tells Karl that Doyle is a "monster." Frank says he wants to kill Doyle. Karl takes all this literally.
Doyle is not a nice man, that's for sure. But is he violent? He threatens Linda's life verbally, but he never attacks her. After she pushes him, he pushes her back. Then, while Frank throws things at him, Doyle lies on the floor and takes it. So is he dangerous? It's not 100% clear.
Another question brought up by the narrative style is whether or not Vaughan and Frank are taking advantage of Karl. Consciously or unconsciously, the two plant the seed of murder in Karl's fertile mind. With the perspective so tight on Karl, we don't get to see how these two react to Doyle's murder. Do you think they're relieved?
As a drama, Sling Blade is all over the place. It's dramatic, sure, but it has elements of dark comedy, Southern Gothic, and even Western.
Roger Ebert said in his review, "If 'Forrest Gump' had been written by William Faulkner, the result might have been something like 'Sling Blade.'" You read that right. Ebert is comparing Billy Bob Thornton to William Faulkner, a giant in American literature. It isn't a crazy comparison. Thornton may never have written a novel, but William Faulkner did write screenplays, and both men drew upon their deep Southern roots to craft their stories.
In fact, Sling Blade feels like a modern Southern Gothic tale. It's deceptive in its apparent simplicity. It's a story that draws us in with a straightforward narrative but that makes us think about complex moral questions. And it's got the darkness and weirdness of all true Southern Gothic stories.
Also, being an independent film, Sling Blade is able to explore various genres without ever truly committing to one easily digestible mood. The beginning, with Karl being interviewed in a dark, dark room, reminds us of The Silence of the Lambs—with a thick Southern accent. From there, the film transitions to a Southern Gothic-style drama.
The rest of the film is a Western of sorts. Karl is the new man come to a small town, a sheriff type who by the end of the movie will take the law into his own hands. In Westerns, bad guys wear black hats, and good guys wear white hats. There are no cowboy hats in Sling Blade, but if there were, what color hat would Karl wear? We think he'd look good in a checkerboard pattern.
This mixture of genres and moods fits in with Southern Gothic, which, like Southern cooking, is best when a bunch of ingredients are thrown together in a big pot and left to simmer.
Unless we're talking about a horror movie, it's not often that a title refers to a sharp tool that's used to carve someone's head into two bloody lumps—but Sling Blade isn't your average movie.
The sling blade is the weapon Karl uses to murder his mother and her lover. Here is Karl himself describing it to us:
KARL: Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade. It's got a long wood handle, kinda like a ax-handle. With a long blade on it, shaped kinda like a bananer. Mm-hmm. Sharp on one edge, and dull on the other. It's what the highwayboys use to cut down weeds and what-not.
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to this simple tool. Like the sling blade itself, Karl can be seen as sharp on one edge and dull on the other. It depends on how you look at him. He looks simple on the outside, but inside, he is rife with inner conflict and turmoil.
On top of that, think about Karl's description of the sling blade as something used to cut down weeds. Well, Karl used this thing to cut down his mother, who he saw as a weed—useless, out of control, and destructive. It's how he views the villains his life later in the film, too. He sees his father as worthy of extermination, but after visiting him, he realizes the guy will just die naturally. Doyle, on the other hand, is a weed that's still growing. Doyle needs to be pulled.
Finally, the fact that the tool has two names shows us how two people can see the exact same thing and call it by two different names. That speaks to the ambiguity of the film, and how you can interpret it in so many ways. Unless, of course, the sling blade is rapidly speeding toward your face, in which case there is only has one interpretation: your certain death.
The ending to Sling Blade is shocking in how not shocking it is. Unless you slept through the first half hour, you're expecting Karl to kill someone over the course of the movie. Along the way, in fact, it's hard to decide whether we hope Karl will kill Doyle, or whether we hope that he won't.
If you hoped he wouldn't, and that he would instead remain with Frank and Linda as the weird garage-dwelling member of their family, you must have been disappointed when Karl plunged the freshly sharpened lawnmower blade into Doyle's skull.
Sling Blade isn't a movie with M. Night Shyamalan-style plot twists. Karl has been alive this whole time, and the plants aren't trying to kill people. No, this is a simple-but-complex film about Karl's inevitable journey to killing Doyle. But was it really inevitable? When Karl goes to Vaughan before killing Doyle, Vaughan must know what Karl is about to do, right? But Vaughan doesn't try to stop him. Why?
Whatever the whys, Karl ends up back in the mental institution. This ending brings us full circle, back to where we began. We're going in circles, which reminds us of the definition of insanity we've read online when attempting to psychoanalyze ourselves: it's doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Except that Karl didn't expect different results: he wanted to go back to the hospital. Does that make him sane?
Returning to the mental hospital puts Karl alongside his foil, Charles Bushman, once again. This time, the contrast between them is much clearer than it was at the film's beginning. Charles kills people selfishly, because he wants to possess them in a sick way. Karl believes that the murder he committed was selfless, done to save Frank's life.
This conversation between these men tells us the real reason Karl wanted to return to the hospital's monochrome world.
CHARLES: What was it like out there in the world?
KARL: It was too big.
Karl prefers a world where most big decisions are made for him and the only choices he must make for himself are simple ones. When Charles leaves, dragging his chair away, Karl remains staring out the window. Maybe he's wondering what life is like for Frank and Linda left in the world without him.
Here are a few words we'd use to describe Sling Blade: understated, quiet, brooding, and a little salty, like a basket of French-fried potaters. Haven't you ever wondered what those potatoes are thinking? They do have eyes, you know. They're watching you.
When we're not thinking of sentient, man-eating potatoes, we're thinking of a few words we wouldn't use to describe Sling Blade: sensational, gratuitous, explicit, sexual. There is no sex, although there is some risqué dialogue. And all violence occurs off-screen.
So why is it rated R?
The answer is Doyle. Doyle contributes "22 f-cks, 13 -sses, 12 sh-ts, 7 sons of b-tches, 3 t-ts, 3 pr-cks, 2 p-ssies, and 1 c-cksucker" to the script (source).
Heavens to Betsy.
Karl is like a human version of the MPAA. He's awfully concerned about language, telling young Frank not to swear because he is a child. But Frank most likely gets the bad language from Doyle. Maybe that's why Karl kills Doyle—to eliminate a total potty mouth from the world.