Disney / Buena Vista | 1996 | 135 mins | Rated R

In the 1980’s, Billy Bob Thornton was living in Los Angeles and trying to establish himself as an actor; one night, while working as a waiter at an industry event, he struck up a conversation with the legendary director Billy Wilder (The Apartment, Stalag 17). Wilder suggested Thornton try his hand at screenwriting. Taking Wilder’s advice to heart, Billy went on to write, direct and star in the independent film Sling Blade, which was released in 1996. Thornton’s screenplay earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Edgar Award, while his performance received Oscar and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actor.

SlingbladeWith Sling Blade, Thornton created one of the most fascinating and complex character studies on film. Released from a mental institution twenty-five years after killing his mother and her lover, Karl Childers (Thornton), returns to the small southern town where he was born and is quickly befriended by a young boy named Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) who doesn’t judge his odd mannerisms or his unique looks. He helps the boy carry some heavy bags of laundry back to his home. Despite this glimmer of hope in the form of a new friendship, Karl seeks solace in what he knows best: a hospital. The hospital’s personable director Jerry Woolridge (James Hampton) agrees to take Karl in for the night at his own home and promises him an interview for employment at a small repair shop in town. The shop’s owner, Bill Cox (Rick Dial), gives Karl a job and even opens his heart to him; offering Karl an old army cot to sleep on in the shops back room.

Karl’s friendship with young Frank continues to grow. He meets his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), as well as her homosexual friend Vaughan (John Ritter), the manager of the dollar store where she works. Karl also gets to know Linda’s abusive and hateful boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam). As Doyle’s abusive behavior increases along with his distaste for Vaughn, Karl must decide what to do in order to keep his new friends life happy and his own “family” unit intact.

A story about family, friendship and the ties that bind, Sling Blade is a real slice of Americana. A southerner himself, Thornton has steeped the film in southern atmosphere. Karl analyzes the world around him in a way that a man who hasn’t spent years being influenced by it could. Scripture and his own moral compass are the things that have shaped him; he uses what he learned from reading the Bible while he was institutionalized to resolve the wrongs done to him and the wrongs he’s done to others. Now he uses the Bible to figure out a way to return the love shown him by Frank and the others that have accepted him. The relationship between Karl and Frank is a loving one. While Karl quickly becomes a father figure for Frank, Karl seems to regard him more as a little brother. However, the loving bond between the two is unmistakable.

Sling Blade is one of those rare films where every actor involved is perfect in their role. Billy Bob Thornton mesmerizes as Karl Childers. Immersing himself in the part so thoroughly and convincingly, the performance demonstrates a level of excellence, commitment, and skill that’s virtually impossible to outdo. Dwight Yoakam is surprisingly effective as Doyle Hargraves. The foul-mouthed, nasty fault son-of-a-gun Hargraves is perfectly presented, the hate is always on display, even in his attempts to be more forthright and friendly towards the other characters. Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, and John Ritter (in a wonderfully dramatic switch, after years of comedy roles) deliver complex and nuanced efforts and the film also enjoys stellar outings from its secondary actors: Bill Dial, J.T. Walsh as Karl’s disturbed hospital mate, Robert Duvall as Karl’s estranged father, James Hampton, and Brent Briscoe as Karl’s co-worker Scooter.

In the included audio commentary, Billy Bob Thornton says that Sling Blade was, “the best moviemaking experience of my entire life” and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to find major fault with this film; the script, directing and acting all came together to create a film that works from start to finish. Sling Blade belongs in everyone’s Blu-ray collection.

Sling Blade comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p, 1.85:1-framed transfer. Since this film was shot on a modest budget back in the mid-’90’s don’t expect reference quality stuff here. However, Colors are solid and black levels are fine. Detail often gets lost in shadows and low light and there’s a thin layer of film grain throughout that makes the film look just a little soft. That being said, there is no evidence of digital artifacts or edge enhancement.

Sling Blade debuts on Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack. There really isn’t too much spread across the front speakers, or the rears. Since this is a dialogue driven film with no action sequences to speak of, it does the job. Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 is offered as an alternate audio option, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.

Sling Blade offers a nice slate of special features:

Audio Commentary with Director/Writer/Actor Billy Bob Thornton. The track is very informative with some intermittent gaps. Thornton discusses how several scenes came about; the origins of Karl’s language, speech patterns, and physical mannerisms; the lack of the color red in the film; the locations; the assembled cast; the real, on-set emotion of several scenes; and several backstage tidbits. Major fans of the film will pleased to hear everything Thornton has to offer.

Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood (480p, 1:06:51) is a 14-part documentary that explores the life and career of Billy Bob Thornton, chronicling his journey that led him to write Sling Blade. The piece features interviews with cast, crew, friends, and family. Interestingly, the documentary also features a branching icon that allows the user to see Thornton directing the actors behind-the-scenes and getting instantly into character himself as he faces the camera.

Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton (480p, 43:24) filmed in 2000; this is a piece that focuses on Thornton’s career, personality, style, and body of work. Includes interviews with Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie (to whom he was married at the time) and Robert Duvall and clips from projects he had been involved with up until that time.

A Roundtable Discussion with Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and Producer David Bushell (480p, 1:15:25) is a 12-part feature that takes viewers behind the world of Slingblade, featuring conversations revolving around the actors’ musical influences, the cast and the film’s success. They all talk about their experiences in Hollywood as well.

A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall (480p, 8:31) features the actors discussing their background together, food and working on the film.

A Conversation with Robert Duvall (480p, 7:35) the actor talks about film’s success, his day of work on the set, Thornton’s role of both acting and directing, and the performances.

A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Composer Daniel Lanois (480p, 22:59) is a six-part piece that looks closely at the film’s score and features the composer playing music from the film. As a musician, Thornton clearly enjoyed discussing this aspect of the project.

The Return of Karl (480p, 3:40) features an impromptu in-character moment.

On the Set is divided into three segments: Billy Bob at Work (480p, 4:39) looks briefly at Thornton’s dual-role on-set; Doyle’s Band: The Johnsons (480p, 1:46) is a clip of an on-set performance; and Doyle Gets Pummeled (480p, 1:53) allows viewers to see one of the film’s scenes from a different angle.

“Doyle’s Dead” with Introduction by Billy Bob Thornton (480p, 4:23) features a deleted scene from the film with Thornton commentary. Originally filmed to serve as a coda after the closing credits but was wisely removed when it proved to break the dramatic exclamation point of the film’s conclusion.

Lunch with Vaughn

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