Billy Bob Thornton: cracker auteur? Or overrated hillbilly with a camera? It depends on whom you’re asking and at what points on the hype curve they saw Sling Blade. If you caught this low-budget labor of love about a murderous simpleton named Karl Childers (mmm-hmm) just after its release, you probably thought it was a solid little piece of work worth rooting for. If you checked in after reading the four-star reviews or watching the Oscar ceremony in which the writer-director-star picked up the Best Original Screenplay award, you may be forgiven for thinking there’s less here than meets the eye. So fast did the tables turn for Billy Bob that the backlash felt more like whiplash.

The truth squats somewhere in the middle. Sling Blade is the pet project of a character actor with larger ambitions, a sense of Southern psychic geography, and a decade of experience knocking about the mid-regions of movie cast credits. The character of Karl first appeared in a 1985 one-man stage show that was then turned into a 25-minute short (released on video last May as Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade), after which Thornton found backing for the feature.

Not that he was putting all his eggs in Karl’s broken basket during this time. In 1991, Thornton also starred in and cowrote One False Move, which still looks like one of the best film noirs of the decade, thanks largely to Carl Franklin’s tight, subtle direction. Thornton penned himself a juicy part as Ray, a vicious, ponytailed good ol’ boy who, unfortunately, is stupid and insecure into the bargain. (His threats keep curdling into whines.) Some of Move‘s lesser characters are schematic — a problem that dogs Sling Blade, too — but it deservedly put the actor on the map.

Just in the wrong neighborhood. Thornton now found work in big movies, but in tiny roles. His appearances in films such as Indecent Exposure, Tombstone, even no-budget wonders like Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, depict his plight: Thornton shows up about 22 minutes into all three tapes, hangs around for a few scenes, and is gone. In Exposure, he’s the low-rent guy in the casino who tells Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore about high roller Robert Redford. In Chopper Chicks, he’s a biker babe’s ex-husband who dies without even becoming a zombie. Tombstone sums up his status in a single image: A shotgun-wielding Thornton stands out of focus in the background while Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, and Sam Elliott chew the fat as if he weren’t even there.

Ahh, what do you expect? The guy’s hardly star material. What chin he has is usually covered with a week’s growth of scrudge; the omnipresent earring, the arm tattoo, the drawl, all spell ”colorful redneck.” This is what makes Sling Blade such a shock. For the first time, Thornton disappears so deeply into a character that he’s unrecognizable.

One thing is sure about Sling Blade: It’s slow. Seen on tape, with competition from domestic distractions, it’s slower still. But that seems to be a conscious decision to get into the observant rhythms of the Deep South. More problematic is that the gravel-voiced man-child Karl remains a dramatic conceit throughout, no more so than in his pat friendship with 10-year-old Frank (Lucas Black).

This isn’t to say Thornton turns in a bad performance — it’s a strikingly detailed, compulsively watchable bit of freak-show acting. But country singer Dwight Yoakam, as Frank’s mother’s abusive boyfriend, and John Ritter, as a sensitive local gay man, inhabit a more believable zone. You can still feel Karl’s roots in a lonely actor’s monologue; the character is also a more sympathetic version of that hook-handed bogeyman in a zillion campfire stories. Does Billy Bob Thornton deserve all the hoopla visited upon him in the last half year? Sure, for getting his movie made the way he wanted. Am I hoping for better from his subsequent three-picture directing deal with Miramax? B

One False Move
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