Sling Blade was released in 1996. The film was written, directed by and stars, Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay and was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of the socially challenged Karl Childers. We dug up a great article in Bomb Magazine [with spoilers so read at your own risk] that featured an interview with Thornton shortly after the film was released.
The film is about Karl, a mildly handicapped man, that has been institutionalized after killing his mother and her lover over a misunderstanding 25 years earlier. We meet Karl when he’s released from the hospital and are quick to wonder, like many of the characters, will he kill again? The film is original, honest and as the interviewer, John Bowe at Bomb suggsts, “is an overall success due to its good intentions and utter lack of bullshit, which is, not surprisingly, the kind of man I found Billy Bob Thornton to be.” Thornton articulates this point well when discussing his interest in making Sling Blade.
I never think about the audience. Never. It always starts with a character and a situation. I just let the story go wherever it’s going to go. The idea of somebody giving up their own soul to save somebody else’s. I wanted to get across this sense of universal justice that you dream of in your head, but that exists only in an ideal way. There’s the religious message. People have always used religion for their own benefit, and Karl was taught a Bible by his parents that didn’t exist. It was just what they wanted him to believe. This movie also has a lot to do with fate. There’s a little bit of magic to it, a little bit of heightened reality. This guy comes to town, and his clothes never wrinkle, he doesn’t sleep. Karl’s character really is, in a way, an angel.
Thornton created Karl years before shooting the film. He was on a film set and between takes, feeling hot and miserable, he starting making faces in the mirror before a whole monologue started flowing. “I was doing this self-loathing, you pile of shit, what do you think you’re doing five lines for, routine.” Thornton borrowed physical characteristics from collection of people he knew over the years and created a unique way of talking and walking.
Karl’s walk is from old men. I play Karl as if he were 80 years old. Even though he’s not, I just naturally started walking that way, like my grandfather did. Also, his language is from another time. It’s not a modern form of language. I’m real interested in that kind of dialect, from where I grew up in Arkansas. The old people I used to know talked that way.
Sling Blade is based on the short story written by Thornton, “Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade”, which was made into a short film, starring Thornton, Molly Ringwald and J.T. Walsh. You can watch the short film in three parts, by following these links. Part One, Part Two, Part Three.
Thornton is known to completely transform himself in his acting and admits, being this character was not only personal, it was hard to let go.
Playing this character, Karl, was like a religious experience for me. It’s sad I can’t do it again. I don’t really believe in sequels.
Thornton has since acted in over twenty films, including Monster’s Ball, which is released along with Sling Blade as a double feature Blu-ray set today. You can get your copy here. The double feature is also available on DVD.