Billy Bob Thornton's "seed" for his Oscar-winning screenplay and directorial debut Sling Blade came from a recollection of a man from his home town in Arkansas. The story is - the parent's of 'this man' made him live behind their home and "fed him like an animal." According to a Lone Star Society interview with Thornton, people said the man was "cursed by the devil". Thornton iterated that "in reality, he had polio, that's what it was."
Today we have guest blogger Chad Krzmarzick discussing the film and elaborating on the central character's fragile complexity. If you haven't seen Sling Blade, it is our suggested movie weekend watch and if you have seen it, watch it again, taking in consideration Krzmarzick's view and contributing your thoughts on the story in the comment's section below. For those unfamiliar with the story, this discussion does discuss the plot in detail.
Remembering Sling Blade and the true intellect of Karl Childers
By Chad Krzmarzick
Tennessee Ernie Ford got it wrong. In Sixteen Tons he describes a man as having "a mind that's weak and a back that's strong." While the latter is certainly true, it is Karl Childers' mind that tips the scales in strength. Yes, he can lift those oil-crusted two-strokes and stay on his feet while six or seven adolescents tackle him downfield, but his mind soars beyond his mere posture. The great mystery of Karl is how he adopted his worldview. In an environment of abuse and abandonment, where does one find the ability to show tenderness and understanding? Karl talks about the bible and the some of the lessons he learned in the four years it took him to read it. While this can account for his moral compass, his ability to assess a world he was shut away from is simply astonishing. His acumen pierces through all the pain and trauma of his past and sees the reality in any given situation. As if an ultra sensitive receptor for emotion, Karl recognizes the love between single-mother Linda and her 12-year-old son Frank. In Linda's small kitchen, Karl senses the bond between her and Frank and assures her he has no intention of threatening this bond. It is not because of a blind innocence that he reveals to her the truth about his violent past, but an uncanny ability to simply know that she possesses a tenderness that is rare in his world.
Throughout this story there are many moments of understanding beyond expectations. Frank and Karl mirror each other in this respect. They both see the true nature of people despite what those people choose to display to the world. They both see Linda's co-worker Vaughan, a gay man in an environment full of prejudice, as a gentle, passionate, and protective friend. They also see through the lies and condescension of Doyle, Linda's dangerous and manipulative boyfriend. This sensitivity to the emotions and motives of others is a trait shared by a boy not yet mired in the minutiae of the adult mind, and by a man who has been shut away from the modern world, as if still peering out from the shed he was forced to live in as a boy. Karl revisits that shed, stepping back into his own traumatic past by visiting his childhood home. It is there where he reveals what are perhaps the most blatant clues into his mind. In a yard overgrown with weeds sits a house untouched by human care for perhaps as long as Karl spent in prison. As Karl peers into the shed where he spent his childhood we are reminded that he is still in many ways sequestered from the world, living apart from us. He then enters the house and his past echoes back at him in obscure voices and clattering pain. He briefly gazes into each room and its painful memory until he finally encounters his broken father. Alone and emotionless, so empty of life he sinks into his chair and almost fully recedes into the house as a forgotten memory. Even in this moment of relived pain Karl can assess this man and his truth. Perhaps sensing the danger of what a life of denial and fear can bring he decides to leave his father as he is: empty of love and full of shame and regret. He returns outside to visit a grave that recalls a memory so painful that it almost transcends emotion.
In the final act it is Karl's understanding of himself that is his ultimate triumph. Despite the friendship that flourishes between him and Frank, and the trust that grows between him and Linda he knows he must sacrifice his freedom and his place in their lives. The growing pattern of abuse is too evident for Karl to ignore, and he knows that it's too soon for Frank to experience the worst of what humanity has to offer. It's difficult to tell whether Karl fears that Frank will end up like him, or that they both will end up like Karl's father; a vessel empty of joy, yet full of pain and self-loathing. Karl knows that the pain he carries has permanently rendered him divorced from society. At times it seems it may be too much for him to bear. Recognizing this and giving fully of one's self to prevent this pain from infecting another is the mark of a true intellect.
Contributing Writer | Chad Krzmarzick