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It’s Favorite Film Friday where I get to relive some of my favorite movies and explain why they had such a profound impact on me as a filmmaker. This week’s film is Sling Blade, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton (the film also earned him an Oscar for the screenplay).

As a lover of independent films one thing that I have to start this post off with is the financial success of this film. The film was made for under a million dollars (IMDB has it listed as 890k) and the domestic gross for the film was over 24M – that’s one hell of a return. Here’s a trailer in case you’ve never seen the film:

This was back in the days where even small films were being made for five million. I think if this film was going to be made now on digital you could very easily slash the budget in half. Furthermore, if you didn’t have any names in the film you could easily have made this film for 200k. Alright, end of money talk. The point of favorite film Friday isn’t to gush over great financial successes, but rather to talk about movies that have a gut impact and that never has to do with how expensive or successful the film was financially.

How I saw the film

I saw this film while I was at film school at UCSB. When I went to school Netflix and internet streaming wasn’t a reality yet. I took advantage of the film school’s library of films and watched a film almost every day in the large blocks of time that always seemed to insert themselves into my school schedule. Unfortunately, I had to return the film back by the end of the day so the only option to watch the films were in the media lab of the library.

Sling Blade, if memory serves, wasn’t even available on Video or DVD. They had about 200 titles on Laser Disc so even if I could take it back with me to my dorm, I had no way of watching the film. I marched over to the media lab with a big Vinyl sized laser disc tucked under my arm and found a cubicle with a 19” monitor and laser disc player. The plastic hard-backed chairs and 10-year-old headphones weren’t the most comfortable ways to watch a film but I distinctly remember that within two minutes of turning on Sling Blade the world around me became invisible as I was sucked into the world of the film. I emerged over two hours later, late to my next class feeling completely changed and inspired to make great cinema. Sometimes movies can move you like that – and Sling Blade was and still is one of those movies.

Still Camera

One of the most amazing things to me about Sling Blade was the patience that Billy Bob Thornton had with his camera. I can’t remember every single shot but almost the entire film was shot very simply on sticks. The compositions were nice enough but usually nothing to write home about. What made the film so hypnotic was the way he would hold a frame for ages and ages. The slow pacing and patience he had with the camera not only drew you in as an audience member but really put you into the cadence of the main character, Karl Childers, who has a mental handicap. As you watch the film you start to see the world through Karl’s eyes and the pacing of the edit is one of the key components that allow this to happen.

Amazing Performance

While we’re on the subject, Billy Bob’s portrayal of Karl Childers is absolutely stunning. While Thornton has been in many films since this film remains his best performance to date and I highly doubt he’ll ever outdo it in his career. There’s a truly transformative nature to the portrayal of Karl Childers that I don’t think I’ve ever seen Thornton bring to another character in his career. To be clear, I’ve loved Thornton in other movies (Monster’s Ball is one I’ll be covering in another FFF post), but there’s something magical about the character he portrays here that is both riveting and humbling at the same time.

The Book Ends

The book ends of the film are a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for films that book-end well. The ability to show a character at the beginning and end of a film and show the transformation (or in this case the audience’s transformation) is always something that gets me. What’s interesting about the way this film book ends is that you realize that Karl hasn’t really changed, it’s just our perception of him as an audience that has.

The way the script is crafted you’re led to believe something about Karl that is violent and gruesome (this isn’t giving anything away) and that violence keeps you on edge for the better part of the first half of the film. It stays with you and makes you realize that perhaps you don’t know Karl Childers as well as you think and the way it ends in a similar fashion to the way the film begins but with our understanding of Karl’s journey is really one of the few cinematic experiences that have stayed with me for over 10 years after watching it.

The message of the film in its simplicity

I remember hearing a speech once that everything you need to really learn in life is taught to you in kindergarten. You learn how to be nice to people, how to share – the basics of being a good human are taught to you by the time you’re five or six years old. In many ways, this movies is about focusing on those parts of life that should be second nature to everyone. The beauty of Karl is that in his simplicity he doesn’t yearn for a bigger house, a beautiful wife, or any kind of external ambition that most of us have – all Karl wants is to be surrounded by love and to ensure that those who treat him well to be happy.

As impactful of a message as that was when I was in film school I feel it in my bones now more than ever as a father of four. Somethings happens to you once you have children and you realize that your dreams are pretty meaningless. There’s a deep part of you that stops trying to reach for the stars and really just tries to get by. Your life gets filled with menial tasks and you’re forced to explain the simplest of things, like the right way to put on socks. When the minutes and hours of your life are filled with such simple things you can’t help but let go of bigger ambitions (at least a little) and hope that your kids learn to find happiness in life no matter what path they should choose.

A writer’s movie

I like stories that don’t rely on flash camera work or special fx. There’s a purist part of me that loves a good story that is able to shine on its own merit. I suppose it’s no surprise that my favorite writers are also playwrights. Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Paddy Chayefsky, Harold Pinter have a rhythm and power to their writing that lives inside the hearts and minds of the characters they commit to paper and Sling Blade is a film that belongs in the pantheon of timeless movies that will hold strong on the merits of their character and structure…I just realized all my favorite writers are also coincidentally Jewish – something things are inescapable.

One last thing – if you watch the film there’s a very good chance you’ll want to talk like Karl. It’s a pretty infecting speech pattern – just know that it’s over twenty years old now so not a lot of people will know what the hell you’re doing. You’ve been warned.


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