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.)
1. Ordinary World
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.
2. Call To Adventure
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.
3. Refusal Of The Call
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.
4. Meeting The Mentor
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.
5. Crossing The Threshold
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.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
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.
7. Approach To The Inmost Cave
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.
9. Reward (Seizing The Sword)
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.
10. The Road Back
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?
12. Return With The Elixir
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.