Karl Childers is a mentally challenged, limping murderer with terrible hair. You know, your typical Hollywood protagonist.
Okay, he's far from typical, but he does have one character trait that movies love: a heart of gold. Yep, he's a mentally challenged, limping murderer with terrible hair and a heart of gold.
We can hear you asking, "How can someone who murdered two people have a heart of gold, mmhmm?" And we hear you asking that in your best Sling Blade voice, and sorry to tell you, but your accent needs work. Anyway, when you think about it, the human heart is made of many different elements—muscle, blood, iron, oxygen. But heart of gold is made of one thing: gold. It's simple.
And Karl, raised in a shack and fed a steady diet of Bible scriptures, is simple. He's like a child. In fact, you can't even spell his last name, Childers, without "child," and that's a sign. Karl believes in absolute morality, in Biblical justice. Do something bad, like have an affair, and you will be struck down.
But there's something else in the Bible: "Thou shalt not kill." That little commandment comes before the adultery one and the one about coveting your neighbor's wife, your neighbor's house, and your neighbor's Tesla. Looks like Karl broke one commandment in order to punish someone for breaking another. So Karl, as a child, accepted his punishment when he was committed to a mental hospital.
KARL: I reckon the reason I'm in here is 'cause I killed somebody. Mmhmm.
We reckon that Karl is someone who doles out punishment, but who also takes the punishment he is given. He does it again at the end of the film, committing a crime with the full knowledge that he'll do the time for it. Does that make him hypocritical? Or does it all make sense within Karl's narrow view of the world?
Everything we've talked about so far takes place before the movie begins. The movie actually begins when Karl is released from the mental hospital back into the new world. For Karl, it's like being a deaf man who not only can suddenly hear, but is also dropped into a Nickelback concert for his first auditory experience. It's overwhelming, out of control, and a little scary, but maybe—just maybe—he kinda likes it.
He likes it a little because even in terrible places like Nickelback, you can find good people. And Karl is lucky enough to find Frank, a young boy who is both a friend and a younger brother to him. Growing up in a literal hole behind his parents' house, Karl only had to take care of himself. But with Frank, Karl explores what it's like to be a big brother and caretaker.
Karl takes "big brother" as his primary role, and he sees Frank's mom's boyfriend Doyle as his nemesis. Doyle is emotionally abusive to Frank and threatens to be physically abusive. Karl stands up to Doyle, literally coming between him and Frank.
KARL: Mister, don't you never lay another hand on that boy. You understand me?
You can see where this is going from the beginning of the movie, and you'll probably be counting down the minutes until Doyle's inevitable demise. But Sling Blade isn't a movie about shocking plot twists. Karl Childers is a protagonist who embodies WYSIWYG: What You See is What You Get. When Karl kills Doyle, it surprises only Doyle, in the moments before his death, because Doyle never tried to understand who Karl was below the surface.
It might be surprising that Karl goes ahead and kills Doyle, especially after we've seen Frank get Karl to consider his past crime and question whether or not committing was right thing to do.
FRANK: Were they bad people?
KARL: I thought they was.
The past tense here implies that Karl now thinks they might not have been bad people. As someone who is finally growing up, Karl sees that the world is a complicated place: it's not black and white. Do you think he would commit the same crime if he knew then what he knows now?
It's difficult to say. Karl can fix a lawnmower blindfolded, but navigating the real world is complicated for him. He is torn between his present reality as Frank's guardian and his past actions as a self-righteous murderer. He ends up reconciling these two identities by becoming both. He thinks he is doing Frank a service by murdering Doyle. But has he done more harm than good?
Frank is the baby brother Karl never had. Well, to be more accurate, Frank is the baby brother Karl may have had if he hadn't buried his real baby brother alive in a shoebox in the backyard.
Yeah, if you thought Sling Blade was a happy movie, you're quite mistaken.
When Karl was around Frank's age, his mother gave birth to a premature baby. His father asked Karl to do away with it. Karl relays the story to Frank:
KARL: I didn't know how to care for no baby. My mother and father didn't want him. They learned me to do what they told me to do. These days I figure it probably best if we just give him right back to the good Lord right off the bat anyhow.
Back then, Karl knew he couldn't take care of the baby. But now, as an adult, Karl realizes that he is able to care for Frank in a way he never could have cared for his own baby brother. In fact, Karl demonstrates his caretaker attitude when the two first meet by offering to carry Frank's laundry for him. And just like at the end of Casablanca, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Unlike Casablanca, though, which ends with the beginning of a friendship, Sling Blade ends with the end of one. Karl kills Doyle, ostensibly to save Frank, but in doing so he removes himself from Frank's life, much in the same way Frank's own father did.
Consider Frank's story of his father's suicide:
FRANK: You know when I told you Daddy got hit by a train? […] It ain't the truth. He shot himself with a shotgun on purpose. […] Because he didn't have enough money to take care of us the way he wanted to. That's what the letter said. […] I thought he took care of us just fine.
Frank's dad killed himself because he thought Frank would be better off that way. Karl doesn't kill himself, but he kills Doyle knowing that this means Frank will never be able to see him again afterward. Karl thinks Frank will be better off without him and Doyle, instead of with the two of them. But he never asks Frank's opinion on it. How do you think Frank feels about Karl killing Doyle?
If he and Karl were just friends, Frank might not mind so much that he's losing Karl. But they're not just friends: they're both seeking replacements for lost relatives in one another. Karl sees Frank as a little brother, while Frank sees Karl as a father figure.
However, as much as Frank might want his father back, that's never going to happen. And his fantasy of him, mom, and Karl being a family isn't going to happen, either. Sadly, Frank is a boy who has had to grow up quickly. As much as he might want to return to his innocent childhood days, that's never going to happen.
Karl is stuck in this tricky balance, too. He wants to preserve Frank's innocence, while also acknowledging his independence. So even though Karl leaves Frank, he does what Frank's own father didn't: he makes preparations for Frank. He tells Frank that he's leaving, even if he isn't completely clear about it.
KARL: Yeah, everything's gonna be all right, boy. I kind of wanna put my arm around you for a minute, then I'm gonna get up and leave out of here. I love you, boy.
Karl also gives his money to Vaughan to use to take care of Linda and Frank. Karl knows he can't deny his own nature, but he is able to be paternal to Frank in a way his own father wasn't. Before killing Doyle and returning to the mental hospital, Karl does his best to prepare Frank to live in the real world on his own. And that's what a real parent should do.
Imagine if Sling Blade were told from Doyle's perspective. What would his backstory be? Why does he push Linda away only to return to her? Why does he say he loves her one moment but threaten her life the next? How can he verbally abuse Linda's child but want to be a family? What makes him invite his so-called friends over and then physically kick them out of the house?
How does a man become as self-destructive as Doyle is?
Doyle's violent contradictions are best summed up at the end of the scene that begins with his friends playing music:
DOYLE: I hate you, you little prick! No, I don't. No I don't. I love your mama. I just…I can't explain what goes on. You bunch of freaks. I hope you have fun. I'll call you tomorrow. I'm sorry, honey. I said I'm sorry, Linda. Okay. All right. You can kiss my ass.
Doyle is all over the place, like a pinball machine in a hurricane in the comments section of Taylor Swift's Instagram. He tells Linda that his erratic attitude is a result of the fact that he's hurting, but he spends so much time lashing out, we don't understand why he's in this pain. It's only in one rare instance of introspection Doyle that gives us a glimpse into his inner turmoil:
DOYLE: I don't like her life or how she lives it. I don't like homosexuals. And she goes out and buddies up with one, so now I gotta deal with that. I don't like little wimpy-ass kids or mental retards, and she got one of each living with her. I'm just kidding really about that. I mean, we all got to get along, I guess, no matter what our differences are.
Doyle is all about the internal conflict, and that conflict eventually becomes external. His inconsistency makes it difficult to tell if Doyle is legitimately dangerous. He threatens to kill Linda, but is he all talk? Or does it not matter, because a threat is bad enough?
Sling Blade subtly asks us to sympathize with Doyle in a way, and it does this with black humor: many of film's best lines come from him. Here's one darkly funny rant:
DOYLE: Is this retard that drools and rubs shit in his hair and all that? 'Cause I'm going to have a hard time eating around that kind of thing now. Just like I am about antique furniture and midgets. You know that. I can't so much as drink a glass of water around a midget or a piece of antique furniture.
By laughing at Doyle, you can't help but feel sorry for him.
But sympathy doesn't change the fact that Doyle is self-destructive—and just plain destructive. Linda appears to sympathize with Doyle at times, and it doesn't help his behavior at all. In fighting with himself, Doyle hurts others. He's a time-bomb waiting to explode, and when a bomb goes off, it's hard to feel sympathy for the bomb. Instead, our sympathies lie with those hurt in the blast.
That is why we asked you to imagine Sling Blade from Doyle's perspective. The questions we asked at the top of the page can't be answered, because Sling Blade is told from Karl's perspective. Doyle never tries to understand Karl, writing him off as a "humped-over retard," but on the flipside, Karl never tries to understand Doyle, either. Instead, he kills him.
We can't say we're shedding that many tears.
We're fond of the phrase "You are what you eat." That makes us about seven cups of coffee washed down with a half-cooked frozen pizza. And it makes Frank's mom, Linda, a woman who is willing to risk her own health for something she likes the taste of.
If you're asking yourself, "Why does Linda stay with Doyle?" the answer is in her first conversation.
VAUGHAN: You're just gonna have to learn to live without all that grease.
LINDA: Shoot, not here in the South. I like grease on everything. I like fried chicken, fried okra. Biscuits and gravy.
VAUGHAN: It'll kill you.
In this little analogy here, Doyle is the grease. He adds flavor to Linda's life, and she can't resist, even though she knows it's dangerous.
The problem is that Linda isn't just eating the grease herself—she's forcing it on Frank, too. It would be one thing if Doyle's destructiveness only affected Linda, but Doyle hurts her son…and yet she keeps allowing him to stay around. She lets Doyle in whenever he wants—though she also lets in Karl, as if to offset Doyle's dangerous tendencies. She's generous with her space, maybe even to a fault.
Linda is sympathetic—again, almost to a fault. She's the only character who attempts to understand Doyle, for example.
LINDA: Doyle's had a real hard life. It's just about run him crazy, I think.
But is she being too nice to him? Does she actually think Doyle is harmless?
To put a sharper point on our question, is Linda a good mother? Well, Karl thinks so.
KARL: Mmm. You're a good mama to that boy. You care for him. You work hard to care for him. You light him up in his eyes. I've seen it. That boy wouldn't know what to do without you. […] You been real good to me too. It ain't everybody that'd make biscuits in the middle of the night.
Karl admires Linda as a mother because she is better than Karl's own mother was. But being better than Karl's mother is crossing a bar it wouldn't take an Olympic high-jumper to get over. He killed her, remember, because she was so bad?
Because Sling Blade is told from Karl's point of view, we don't get Linda or Frank's reactions to Doyle's death. How do you think Linda will take it? She's lost a husband to suicide and a long-term boyfriend to murder. Will she feel free of Doyle, or will she be even more broken than before?
Vaughan is a gay man in Arkansas, which means he might as well be a Muppet at an Insane Clown Posse concert.
The film is set in a vague "present day," which would put it in the mid-90s. But we'd forgive you if you thought it was set in the 1950s. Time moves slowly in rural Arkansas, so even in the mid-90s, no one has computers, cellular phones, or any understanding or acceptance of homosexuality.
As a result, Vaughan feels obligated to live a closeted life. However, aside from a few rude remarks, Doyle appears to tolerate Vaughan. He never threatens to expose Vaughan, nor is he ever violent against him because he is gay. That's one more detail that keeps Doyle from being a total villain.
But still, so by virtue of being gay, Vaughan is disqualified from being a father figure to Frank, even though he would be a better one than Karl or Doyle. According to Linda:
LINDA: You know [Frank's] always after a father figure. […] I don't think he sees you as a "guy" guy.
Remarks like these not only hurt Vaughan's feelings, but they make him feel like less of a man, or less of a person entirely.
Vaughan believes he has a kinship with Karl, who is also viewed as less of a person by the majority of the town because of his mental illness. Even today, a lot of people think homosexuality is a mental illness.
So, feeling a kinship with Karl, Vaughan opens up to him.
VAUGHAN: You see, you and I are a lot alike, as strange as that may seem. I don't mean physically or even mentally, really, but emotionally. Actually, the hand that we've been dealt in life…We're different. People see us as being different, anyway. You're…Well, you've got your affliction or whatever and I…Well, mine's not as easy to see. I'm just going to say it. I'm gay.
From a certain perspective, it might be offensive that Vaughan is equating himself with a person who is mentally ill, as if being gay were a mental illness. However, where Vaughan lives, homosexuality might as well be. Vaughan feels a need to keep his sexuality a secret, so in a way, he envies Karl's ability to limp around eating all the French-fried potaters he wants in broad daylight.
Vaughan feels like living a closeted life is a sacrifice he makes for Linda and Frank. He says as much to Karl:
VAUGHAN: I've wanted to leave many times, but, because I love Linda, Frank, and a certain other person…I…They've kept me from leaving...
For Vaughan, staying local is like living in a mental institution when all he wants to do is get the heck out of town. But neither Linda nor Frank has asked him to stay, and don't you think they would rather Vaughan leave if he were happier elsewhere? Vaughan comes across as having a bit of a martyr complex, maybe.
Vaughan isn't willing to go full martyr and totally sacrifice himself for Linda and Frank, though. Instead, he relies on Karl to make the sacrifice for him.
Yes, we are suggesting that Vaughan manipulates Karl into killing Doyle so that he doesn't have to. Consider the following. When Karl tells Vaughan to keep Linda and Frank away from their house, Vaughan must know that Karl is about to kill Doyle, right? If Vaughan knew that, and didn't stop it, then what are the implications of his silence? What would Linda think if she knew? And by allowing Karl to do it, is Vaughan letting Karl commit a crime that he knows he could never commit himself?
We know that this is one of the more cynical ways to view the movie, but we have to go there. After all, if Sling Blade teaches us anything, it's that people who feel trapped will take desperate measures to get out.
The entirety of Karl's dad's on-screen time can be squeezed into one brief YouTube video, but his effect on his son's life colors the entire movie. Dad's parenting style is summed up by this quote:
DAD: I ain't got no boy. […] You ain't no kin to me.
We have to wonder if Dad understands how complex his statement is. This man had two sons, and now he says he has no boy. He asked Karl to kill the other baby, born prematurely, and now he has disavowed the existence of both his offspring. Dad then put his surviving son in a shack and left him there.
On top of that, this guy has a house decorated with Christian artifacts and assumes a holier-than-thou, sanctimonious attitude, even though he is a complete failure of a father. The words "heartless" and "cruel" don't even begin to cover this man's actions.
After having his existence disavowed in front of him, Karl gives a speech to his dad, maybe his longest in the film besides the opening monologue. Here's a snippet of it:
KARL: I studied on killing you. I studied about it quite a bit. But I don't reckon there's no need for it if all you're gonna do is sit there in that chair. You'll be dead soon enough. And the world'll be shut of you.
This speech shows us that Karl has forgiven his father, in his way, but it also serves as a bit of misdirection. It makes us think that Karl has realized that killing isn't the answer. But it's shortly after this episode that Karl up and kills Doyle. Karl knows his dad is at death's door, but Doyle is still a few hundred miles from his final destination, so Karl takes it upon himself to speed up Doyle's journey to meet his maker.
Back to Karl's dad. There is a weird, sentimental tenderness to Karl's relationship with his father. His pops may be an awful man, but he's still Karl's dad. And he did instill in his son a lifelong love of biscuits and mustard, so there's that.
We're not sure the exact motive for Karl's late visit to his father, but it seems that he goes there seeking acceptance, which he has never had for his entire life. Maybe Karl thinks that his dad, as he is dying, will repent for his past sins.
Yeah, not happening. The miserable old jerk is still a miserable old jerk, while Karl steps up as the more mature individual by showing his father mercy and deciding to spare the guy's life—a mercy his younger brother never had.
If the mental hospital allows it, Karl should send his dear old dad a Father's Day card. Maybe something heartfelt, like Dear Dad, Hope You Are Dead Now, Love Karl.
Charles Bushman is a guy we only see briefly at the very beginning and very end of the movie. He's like the world's creepiest pair of bookends. We only know his name from the credits, so really, we just think of him as "that creepy killer guy," which doesn't even begin to fully cover the extent of his creepiness.
So, let's just talk about the elephant in the room right away: Charles is a man who has tied up women and killed them because he thinks they belong to him.
Charles is set up to show us a foil to Karl. Charles reminds us that the people in this mental hospital—Karl included—are there because they murdered people. However, Charles kills people because he feels entitled to, period. Karl kills people because he feels entitled to protect the people he cares about. So the question is: is there really a difference?
Karl killed because he felt it was the right thing to do. Charles kills because he wants to. He enjoys taking advantage of people, something he does simply by having a conversation with Karl.
CHARLES: I don't really like people who talk all the time. I like to do all the talking. That's why I think I'm so fond of you, 'cause you just so easygoing, you know. Although, I do sense a little tension in you, time to time.
Even in the mental hospital, Charles is searching for a victim.
At the end of the movie, Karl finally talks back to Charles, which shuts him right up, leaving Karl in peace.
Jerry is the administrator of the mental hospital, but he appears to care for a Karl in a way that exceeds his typical duties. Jerry helps Karl find work and a place to stay and even checks in on him. All that work is going above and beyond the line of duty.
We don't get to know Jerry beyond seeing his good deeds; for all we know, he would work this hard for any of his patients. But he still goes the extra mile for Karl when he lets him spend the night in his own home, with his family. We doubt Jerry would let creepy Charles Bushman, for example, spend the night in his home. But Jerry trusts Karl. Do you think Jerry feels betrayed when Karl ends up committing another murder in the end?
In a world of Nurse Ratcheds, Jerry Woolridge shows us the softer side of hospital administration. The state itself may be failing Karl by dumping him out onto the streets without any sort of support system, but Jerry does his best to pick up the slack and to do the best he can for him.
Melinda is a character who only appears briefly as a comic relief and love interest for Karl. What's her big passion in life? Getting Employee of the Month at the dollar store. We'll let her explain.
MELINDA: Well, when you like pricing items as much as I do, it's just bound to happen sooner or later, I guess.
Thanks, Melinda. That was riveting.
Like Karl, Melinda is simple. She appears to like Karl, bringing him flowers at the repair shop the day after they meet at Vaughan's house, for example. But she's such a brief presence, it's difficult to tell what, if any, impact she has on Karl's life. Could you see them together if Karl didn't have to go back to the hospital?
Bill Cox is the first person in the real world to extend kindness to Karl. He and his employee, Scooter, welcome Karl into their repair shop. Cox pays Karl and gives him a room in exchange for his manual labor. And Bill appreciates good labor when he sees it.
BILL: You couldn't have been more right about him fixing things. That son of a bitch is a regular Eli Whitney on a lawn mower.
In fact, Bill often teases Scooter because Karl is better at the job than Scooter is—like when Scooter is struggling to fix a machine and Karl points out it's out of gas.
BILL: You see there, Scooter. Thinks of the simplest things first.
Bill also feels guilty for keeping Karl locked up in the back room. He says it's because of the way the shop doors lock, and we're inclined to believe him. But he could be doing it because he doesn't trust Karl at first. Whatever the reason, Karl's gentle nature quickly wins over Bill and earns him a key to the shop.
BILL: You've been in lockup so long, you don't need me to keeping you locked up. You need to come and go as you please. Here. Take this key. It'll get you in and out of here at night.
That little piece of metal is so thoughtful, it might as well be the key to city. And to our hearts.
Marsha Dwiggins, the college student doing a report on Karl, is nothing more than a plot device to set up our story. She's more of a character in the short film the movie is based on, fleshed out there by Molly Ringwald. But here, all she does is ask Karl a key question.
MARSHA DWIGGINS: Will you ever kill anybody again, Karl?
KARL: I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody. Mm.
Karl's answer is telling in its honesty. Karl will spend the rest of the rest of the movie in peace…until Doyle gives him a reason to kill.