Interesting characters and solid acting help to redeem a somewhat predictable story in Sling Blade. Billy Bob Thornton directs and stars as Karl Childers, a mentally retarded man who has spent the last twenty-five years in a mental institution after killing his mother and her lover with a sling blade at the age of 12. He returns to the small town of his birth, and is given a job as a lawnmower mechanic, as he seems to have a remarkable ability to fix things. He makes friends with a troubled young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), whose mother (Natalie Candeday), believing Karl is harmless, lets him sleep in their garage. What is troubling the young boy, as well as his mother, is one Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam), the mother’s current boyfriend. Doyle is a loutish drunken oaf who rules over Frank and his mother with the threat of violence. Doyle doesn’t particularly care for Karl’s presence, but doesn’t see him as a threat either, just someone else to threaten and complain about. Billy Bob creates a unique character in Karl, whose thought processes are so slow and laborious that you can nearly see them happening in his flat expression. He spends a large portion of the film thinking…trying to make sense of his confusing world, a huge task when even the choice of what to eat at a fast food restaurant seems beyond his grasp. Yet, there is a deep humanity inside Karl, that somehow shines through his shuffle, his grunts and his gruff speech. The supporting cast also turn in fine performances, particularly Yoakam and John Ritter as Frank’s mother’s gay boss. The movie’s flaw is in its plot. Everything is overly telegraphed, and you can see where the movie is going from a mile away, but it is worth the journey to discover a character like Karl.
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