KARL: Never did know too much of nobody down there, not to be helping me out no way, mmhmm.
The more we learn about Karl's family, the more we realize that the "nobody" he's talking about from his hometown doesn't only include the townsfolk—it also includes his family. To say he wasn't close to his family would be an understatement.
LINDA: Frank loves company. You know, especially after his daddy passed and all.
Frank, like Karl, isn't close to his father. But in Frank's case, it's because his father committed suicide. In a way, both Karl and Frank deal with thoughts that their own fathers never wanted them.
LINDA: You know he's always after a father figure. […] I don't think he sees you as a "guy" guy.
Linda's comment here sets up Karl as a father figure for Frank. Is Karl a father figure, a brother, a friend, or all three to young Frank? Why? Do Frank and Karl see the dynamic in different ways?
DOYLE: Let's all just be a family till your mentally retarded friend and your homosexual friend get here.
Doyle is the father no one asked for and no one wants. Karl, Frank, and Vaughan all wish they had better (or simply alive) fathers, but none of them are desperate enough to accept Doyle as a father figure.
VAUGHAN: Linda and Frank are very important to me. They're like family. My own family was never like a family.
We can't think of a character in this movie who doesn't have family issues. Now we can add Vaughan to the mix, with Frank, Karl, and Linda. Vaughan says out loud what Frank and Karl are doing—they are making their own family.
VAUGHAN: They're horrible people. As a matter of fact, for years I prayed every night that my father would die... and finally I realized, through a lot of therapy, that I was wasting my energy on hating him. So now I just don't care.
Lots of father issues in this movie, folks. Frank's dad is dead, and he's sad about it. Vaughan and Karl both wish their own fathers were dead. Later in the film, Karl's attitude toward his father will mimic Vaughan's—he'll stop wanting to kill his father and will instead just accept the fact that he'll be dead soon.
FRANK: That don't seem right. It seems like you would have took kept him and took care of him if he was your brother.
Frank and Karl share a sad moment when Karl admits that his younger brother was born premature, so Karl buried him in a shoebox in the yard. Frank, who would do anything to have more male family members, believes he would have made a different decision from the one Karl did, but Karl knows that his poor brother wouldn't have stood a chance.
DAD: I ain't got no boy. […] You ain't no kin to me.
We doubt Dad's opinion that he doesn't have a son, spoken to his son standing in front of him, is a new one. We imagine that Dad voiced this opinion even when Karl was young, and that played a big part in Karl wanting his own father dead.
DOYLE: See, your mama and I don't have no problems except for you. Fact is, we never have a bad word between us. But since you do exist and I'm gonna be the head of the household then you're gonna learn to live by my rules. And the first rule is: You don't speak unless you're spoken to. You got me? Now you stay the hell out of my way. And do what a regular kid does. You're a weird little s***, Frank. And I don't get you. So wake up and face what they call reality. See, we're gonna be a family, Frank. My family. I'll be paying all the bills. So that means, you're stuck with my ass, but I ain't your daddy. You just act like I am.
Doyle's idea of family sounds more like a dictatorship to us. Just sayin'.
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.
We're not sure we'd go far enough to call Linda a good mama, because she does bring Doyle back into her house, knowing full well how dangerous and hateful he is toward her son. But the rest is true—although it might be true only because Linda is the only living family member Frank has left.
FRANK: I wish me and you and Mama would just run away.
By the end of the movie, Frank thinks the three of them could go anywhere and be okay. That means he considers Karl a member of the family.
KARL: They told me I was well. Had to turn me loose.
FRANK: Well are you well?
KARL: I reckon I feel all right.
Karl has a childlike honesty in his responses, especially this one. The "are you well?" question is a loaded one that basically means, "Are you going to kill anyone again?" Karl's answer is true…in the moment. Karl also has a childlike ability not to think much about the future.
KARL: You don't need to hear things like that. You just a boy. You need to think about good thoughts while you still a boy. They's plenty of time for all the other.
Karl wants to preserve Frank's innocence, maybe because Karl never had any innocent years of his own.
KARL: Well, I growed up an' learned that you ain't supposed to kill nobody.
Karl killed his mother and her lover without any thought of the consequences, and he did it thinking that it was the right thing to do. Can murder ever be "innocent," in a way?
VAUGHAN: You shouldn't say that. You were taught that, weren't you?
Vaughan corrects Karl for saying he's not funny ha-ha but funny queer. However, Vaughan doesn't get personally insulted by Karl's comment. He knows that mentally, Karl is basically a child repeating something he's been told, in this case by another child—although we imagine Frank heard it from Doyle, making it less than innocent.
FRANK: That makes me feel real sad. Couldn't you have done something, Karl? I would have. I wished I'd had him. He'd still be right here, now. Living.
KARL: It makes me sad too. I wish there was something I could have did about it. I don't think nothing bad oughta happen to children. I think all those bad things oughta be saved up for the folks that done growed up, that's the way I see it. Mmhmm. I shouldn't have told you about that. Boy your age ought not to hear such things. It just kind of come out.
Karl is attempting to do for Frank what many fathers try to do for their children: shield them from bad things. But is attempting to protect children from the realities of the world a parenting method that is itself childish?
KARL: You just a boy. You ought not use language like that.
Because he was raised in a Bible-loving household, Karl has a kind of Puritan innocence. He believes that Frank should have a clean mouth until he reaches an age of maturity. But considering some of the things Frank has seen in his young life, isn't he entitled to a swear word or two?
FRANK: I'm real tired, you know that? A boy my age shouldn't be tired of things.
This line from Frank signals that despite Karl's attempts to preserve Frank's innocence, it's all over. He's already an adult, and at a young age, that is difficult to bear.
KARL: I can help you tote it if I don't give out first.
A murderer is let out of a mental institution. He comes along a young boy, walking alone. In a different movie, this would be the beginning of another grisly crime. But in Sling Blade, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
FRANK: If you wanna play, you can come on over, because we ain't no good either.
We don't know Karl's history at this point, so it seems like he and Frank are making friends. They are becoming friends, but it might be more like Frank is the younger brother who Karl never had.
FRANK: I won't tell her about you being in the state hospital for killing.
Hey, you know you can trust someone who keeps your criminal record a secret from his mother.
FRANK: I like the way you talk.
KARL: Well, I like the way you talk.
This is a funny exchange, and it shows us how comfortable Frank and Karl have grown with each other. They accept one another for differences that other people might find weird or off-putting.
FRANK: Last time, you got mad and run Morris and them off. Told them to stay away from here.
DOYLE: That ain't none of your business, Frank. Besides, that's the way friends do one another.
We're not sure Doyle knows what friendship actually means. Most people don't run their friends out of the house and tell them to never come back. But what kind of friends actually come back the way these people do?
DOYLE: We don't got no goddamn band! We don't need to f***ing practice, Randy! And we don't need a s***-ass manager neither! You motherf***ers! Y'all just a bunch of losers! I'm the only sane son-of-a-b**** here! Get the f*** out of my house, now!
Doyle doesn't have any friends, because he's a terrible person. But maybe he's a terrible person because he doesn't have any real friends? It's a confusing cycle, a chicken-or-the-egg situation involving abuse and sadness.
KARL: I'm tired too. Just 'cause I ain't gonna be around no more, maybe that don't mean I don't care for you. I care for you a good deal. I care for you more than anything else they is. You and me made friends right off the bat. […] It don't make no difference where I was to be. We'll always be friends. Can't nobody stop that.
This is Karl's way of saying goodbye to Frank. Is he being a good friend to Frank by killing Doyle? Or would he be a better friend to Frank if he stayed by his side literally, instead of with all this metaphorical "we'll always be friends" stuff?
KARL: I like your garage. I never would hurt you or that boy. I'd lay my hand on the Bible and say the same thing.
Karl believes that his word will get some extra oomph if he lays his hand on a Bible. That shows us that he had a religious upbringing, and that he takes it somewhat seriously.
KARL: I wasn't but six or eight. I reckon I didn't know what to do. 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.
Karl gives the premature baby a merciful death because he believes the child will return to the Lord. Frank says he would have tried to keep the baby alive. Is that because Frank isn't religious? Or are there other reasons?
FRANK: I didn't mean to say nothing bad about you. You're good. You don't mean no harm. You ever think about killing yourself on purpose, like Daddy did?
KARL: I studied about it some. Bible says you ought not to. Says you do that, you go off to Hades. Mmhmm. Some folks call it hell. I call it Hades.
FRANK: Bible says the same thing about killing others too.
KARL: Yes, sir. I reckon it does.
This exchange is the beginning of Karl's questioning of his own religion. He thinks Frank's dad is a good man, and he can't imagine that he would go to Hades for killing himself. We're not sure if Karl thinks he is going to hell himself, but he doesn't feel any guilt for the murders he committed. He is starting to think that the Bible isn't 100% in line with his own personal beliefs.
KARL: I learned to read some. I read the Bible quite a bit. I can't understand all of it, but I reckon I understand a good deal of it. Them stories you and Mama told me, they ain't in there. You ought not done that to your boy. 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. You ought not kill my little brother. He ought of had a chance to growed up. He would have had fun sometimes.
Karl appears to have been raised in a fundamentalist household. We're not sure what stories they told him that weren't in the Bible, but it appears they thought that by keeping Karl from reading, he wouldn't learn to read the Bible and question them. Knowledge is power.
KARL: I wanna be baptized.
Even with his mild religious confusion, Karl wants to be baptized. But why? What does he still believe in? To us, it seems like Karl is getting baptized as a safeguard before killing Doyle. Maybe if he's baptized before he does it, his soul will be safe.
KARL: I don't reckon that you have to go with women to be a good daddy to a boy. You been real square dealing with me. Bible says two men ought not lay together. But I bet you the good Lord wouldn't send nobody like you to Hades.
Karl is a kind of Jesus figure, in a way. He considers himself a savior, so it's not surprising that he thinks he can revise the Bible to fit his newfound belief system.
KARL: Some folks has asked me, "If you had it to do over again, would you do it the same way?" Well, I reckon I would. Seein' how they seem fit to put in here, and here I been for a great long while. I've learned to read some. Took me four years to read the Bible. I reckon I understand a great deal of it. More than what I expected in some places. I slept in a good bed for a great long while. Now they seem fit to put me outta here. They say they're setting me free today. Hmm.
Karl has enjoyed his confinement and made the best of it. Freedom is scary to him: he has no idea what to expect in the wide, weird world outside. Would it have been different if he hadn't grown up in a shed?
KARL: Reckon I'm gonna have to get used to them looking at me too, hmm.
Another benefit to Karl being in the mental hospital is that he doesn't have to deal with people staring at him and treating him like he's different. In the hospital, everyone is weird in his or her own way, so the patients treat one another as if they were all normal. Or they stare out into space. Either way, they're not bothering Karl by staring at him.
KARL: I want to come back and stay in here. […] I reckon I don't care nothing about being a free man. I don't know how to go about it.
After a day in town, Karl tries to return to the mental hospital. Having the freedom to be in the real world induces anxiety in him.
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.
Bill puts Karl in a little room, not because he doesn't trust him, but simply because that's the way the shop works. However, he soon feels guilty about it, giving him a key to get out. Karl actually leaves, showing us that he's getting comfortable in the real world. He doesn't want to isolate himself anymore.
CHARLES: What was it like out there in the world?
KARL: It was too big.
Having too many choices can cause anxiety: it's called the paradox of choice. Karl has led such a sheltered life that he has a difficult time adjusting to the nearly infinite number of possibilities in the real world. Kimmy Schmidt he's not.