Sling Blade (Blu-ray)
Directed by Billy Bob Thornton
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 132 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 34.99
Release Date: August 4, 2009
Review Date: July 25, 2009
A fascinating character study of one of nature’s misfits coping uneasily with a complex, sometimes mean-spirited world comes gloriously alive in Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade. More than a decade since its initial release, the character of Karl Childers has become an iconic figure of simple, direct, even homespun wholesomeness however ironic that may seem, and the singular vision of its director-writer-star is an astonishing mixture of humor and heart that rewards multiple visits to its sleepy Southern existence.
Released from a mental institution after twenty-five years for slaughtering his mother and her lover thinking she was being attacked, mildly retarded Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) returns to his hometown and is instantly befriended by a lonely young boy Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black) who doesn’t judge his mannerisms or his unique looks. Offered the garage room by Frank’s kind mother Linda (Natalie Canderday), Karl begins forming his own kind of family, joined by Linda’s gay boss Vaughn (John Ritter) and his boss at a small engine repair store (Rick Dial). Trouble enters the picture with Linda’s abusive redneck boy friend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam) who resists all of the “weirdos” who seem to take comfort in each other’s company. Karl’s dilemma becomes either steering clear of trouble or inevitably defending people he has come to know and love.
Southern atmosphere is as thick as molasses in this believably realized small town slice-of-life with the people who seem to know everything about everybody else, and Thornton has captured it in his screenplay, in his location shooting, and in the casting of legitimate Southerners to portray these characters. Despite some easily forgiven novice director’s mistakes (scenes run on too long to no emotional purpose; master shots composed without much activity and much variation; a basically unnecessary subplot about the death of a brother and a late-film visit to his broken father inserted to bring Oscar-winner Robert Duvall into the film), the somewhat lengthy movie wafts over the viewer, drawing us into this world of gentility masking secrets and simmering emotions. The climactic confrontational scene is pretty much telegraphed long before we get to it, but one doesn’t mind its very inevitability since the journey to that point is so filled with funny and poignant encounters that resonate with the viewer long after the film has ended. Little wonder that the script won both the Writers’ Guild of America prize and the Oscar as Best Adapted Screenplay (based on a play and short film written by Thornton).
Billy Bob Thornton was also nominated as Best Actor for his affecting work as Karl Childers. It’s a fascinating performance filled with silences and a particular body language that’s as much a part of the role as the much-imitated gravelly-voiced accent and slight jaw-jutting leer that he’s affected for the part. Dwight Yoakam is also a huge surprise as the dangerous and ignorantly opinionated Doyle, a portrayal of genuinely believable menace. Lucas Black, an amateur chosen for the role of the troubled son, is solid if somewhat verbally colorless as Karl’s beloved friend Frank, but Natalie Canderday makes a sweetly welcoming sight as the gentle Linda. John Ritter might not milk every emotion out of the somewhat underwritten role of Vaughn, but it’s certainly a performance unlike any we had ever previously seen from him. In smaller parts, J. T. Walsh as a fellow inmate at the asylum has a couple of effective scenes, Rick Dial, another amateur, is very effective as Karl’s understanding boss, and James Hampton plays with surety the gracious head of the mental institute who wishes only good things for Karl.
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is moderately well achieved with this picture, but it’s never nearly as sharp as the best high definition transfers (though some of the softness is due to lapses in the original photography). Color accuracy and flesh tones are well achieved without attaining anything exemplary while black levels are often crushed in a couple of deeply shadowed monologues that don’t feature great shadow detail. The film has been divided into 25 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix betrays its low budget origins with a mostly frontcentric presentation that only occasionally sends some of the music and country tunes through the fronts and seeping into the rears. A moment or two of fairly deep bass gives the subwoofer some action late in the movie, but for the rest, it’s basically silent.
The audio commentary by writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton repeats anecdotes heard on the many bonus supplements included with this disc, but it’s interesting to hear him share thoughts and feelings about the film’s actors, production design, and locations. It’s a worthwhile listen.
“Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood” is a 67-minute biographical look at the lengthy journey to recognition for the star of the film. Dealing with his upbringing, health issues, struggles for parts, and the small roles he landed before scoring with this film, the documentary also features a branching icon which the user may click on to see the star directing the actors behind-the-scenes and getting instantly into character himself once he must face the camera. This and all other featurettes are presented in 480i.
Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton is a 43 ½-minute profile on the actor filmed in 2000 basically focusing on his lack of pretense or change from his humble roots. Featuring interviews with friends and co-workers such as Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie (to whom he was married at the time), and Robert Duvall, the program rambles a bit but features clips from some of his most interesting projects made to that time.
Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Mickey Jones, and producer David Bushell (who doesn’t speak much until near the end of the feature) participate in a roundtable discussion about the making of the film and share stories about their other experiences in Hollywood. It runs for 75 ½ minutes.
“A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall” details the star’s lifelong admiration for the venerable older actor as the two swap stories about working in each other’s projects. It lasts 8 ½ minutes.
“A Conversation with Robert Duvall” finds the Oscar-winning actor being asked a series of questions about working on the movie in a 7 ½ minute interview.
“A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and Daniel Lanois” involves the film’s star and the film’s composer discussing the use of music in the movie with excerpts of particular scenes which both find especially pleasing. It lasts for 23 minutes.
“The Return of Karl” is an on-set improvisation when Thornton once again takes on the character of Karl. This piece runs 3 ¾ minutes.
An On the Set section presents three mini-featurettes: some behind-the-scenes shots of Billy Bob directing the actors and then getting quickly into character (4 ¾ minutes), Doyle’s Band rehearsing for the patio concert scene (1 ¾ minutes), and a take of Doyle getting pummeled by Frank (1 ¾ minutes).
“Doyle’s Dead” is a sequence that was originally filmed to serve as a coda after the closing credits but was wisely removed when it proved to break the dramatic spell of the film’s conclusion. Introduced by Billy Bob Thornton, the piece lasts 4 ½ minutes.
4.5/5 (not an average)
Deeply affecting and still fascinating after a decade of parodies, Sling Blade is a wonderfully spare dramatic character study featuring a breakout performance by its writer-director-star that brought him deservedly to the front lines of Hollywood. The Blu-ray release ports over the bonus features from previous releases of the movie and features an above average audio and video encode that’s highly recommended.
Edited by MattH. - 7/25/2009 at 01:09 pm GMT