I've always found the phrase "breakout performance" to be a rather loosely used term to generalize an unknown actor's performance as distinguished and notable. And yet, the roles never seem very demanding, nor the acting uncommon. But if anyone truly deserved the recognition that label brings, it had to be Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of the mentally impaired Karl Childers in 'Sling Blade'. Up to that point, Thornton had mostly been typecast, with very little room to break free. By writing, directing, and starring in the independent film, he shook the foundations of Hollywood, forcing studios to take notice, and left audiences flabbergasted with a somber tale about a man looking to move on with his life. The sensational talent on display in the film is the epitome of "breakout performance".
Deemed fit to be released from a mental institution, Karl Childers returns to his hometown in Arkansas after 25 years. With the help of the hospital's director, Karl lands a job fixing small engines for a local repair shop. Around this time, he befriends the loner Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), and as their friendship develops, they reveal to one another stories about their pasts. Quickly becoming a father figure to the boy, Karl is introduced to Frank's mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), and her best friend Vaughan (John Ritter). As Frank becomes a younger brother to Karl, their bond continues to grow in light of Linda's abusive boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). In time and as things progress, Karl is forced to confront the evils of his past and make an inescapable decision about his future.
The lure and appeal of 'Sling Blade' lies in a remarkable story about a group of wounded people challenged by the dysfunctions of the modern family. Whether through the eyes of an apologetic homosexual man who deals with daily ridicule and bigotry just to feel like he's a part of a family or through the eyes of a boy who finds paternal love in an individual with a disturbing past, each character is a lost soul revealing a lack of familial love and an emotionally-crippling desire for acceptance. Adapted from Thornton's own screenplay which was made into a short film, the narrative journey is unforgettable as it unfolds naturally, taking its time to reveal the plot. Exposition is skillfully handled over the course of the film and through character interaction, reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner novel, where everything comes to a close at the end. The story is simply phenomenal, both haunting and poetic in its form and originality.
Much like those same novels, Thornton reveals himself as a master storyteller, injecting his tale with plenty of local color while employing a script that beautifully captures the dialect. His first time behind the camera is restrained and unobtrusive, but it works to the benefit of the film by allowing the story to tell itself. In front of the camera, he is a true sensation --- a marvelous achievement in acting, as Thornton completely dissolves into his role and Karl takes hold of our imagination. We never once doubt his existence. He is joined by some equally wonderful performances from the rest of the cast. In particular, John Ritter and Dwight Yoakam as two polar-opposite men always at odds, generating a thick atmosphere of apprehension. While Ritter gives Vaughan the personality of an individual struggling with his own insecurities, Yoakam makes Doyle an intriguing character, suggesting a man imprisoned by his own intolerance.
'Sling Blade' is a mesmerizing film in the tradition of great Southern gothic storytelling, where the end result is easily foreseeable, but beside the point. Like a Greek tragedy, it's about the odyssey of arriving at an inevitable conclusion. That same final outcome teeters on a highly skeptical moral ground, as the simple-minded man-child we had come to admire makes a crucial choice based on a deep-rooted desire to rid the world of evil. It's a genuinely heartfelt and authentic tale that stays with you long after the story is over.
Released a couple of times on DVD, 'Sling Blade' was never really much of a looker, although the 2005 Director's Cut was fairly nice for the format. Despite showing its age, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer (1.85:1) offers a noticeable improvement in resolution, but also arrives with a few troubled spots as well.
Fine object details appear sharper and better defined in close-ups, revealing nice texture in the faces of actors and various articles of clothing. A few shots tend to soften the picture a bit, but are easily excused as a result of the filming techniques and age. Colors show the most obvious improvement, with lush greens filling the screen in every outdoor scene. Brightness is fairly stable, but a tad higher than normal, which makes blacks look a little grayish. Shadows can also come off rather heavy and take away some visibility of background info. Interior sequences also make the grain structure more noticeable, which results in a flatter image and takes away depth. Contrast seems to run hotter than I remember it. There are a few instances of clipping, minor blooming, and facial details that seem washed out. Nonetheless, the upgrade from its standard definition counterpart is appreciable and a faithful representation of its source, likely to please fans of this Billy Bob Thornton classic.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack offers a welcome improvement in fidelity and presence. As a film driven primarily by dialogue and originally recorded in stereo, the mix is well contained and balanced in the front soundstage.Channel separation is excellent, with ambient effects convincingly heard off-screen, while the center speaker delivers precise, unique tonal inflections in each actor's dialect. Daniel Lanois's peculiar and haunting score enjoys an expansive resonance that's very engaging and enjoyable. Dynamic range exhibits great finesse with the film's few high pitches, and low bass isn't extensive but provides some weight to the score and those scenes that require it. The occasional discrete effect can be heard, particularly in outdoor sequences, but rear activity is mostly silent throughout. In the end, the track makes for a fine lossless stereo presentation that's more than adequate for a film such as 'Sling Blade'.
Porting over many of the same bonus material from the 2005 Director's Cut DVD, Disney Home Video releases this Blu-ray edition of 'Sling Blade' with a healthy package of supplements. While it would have been nice to include new retrospective features or a couple of exclusives, there is little to complain about in this collection. All presented in standard definition.
Over a decade old, 'Sling Blade' is just as mesmerizing and effective today as when it originally premiered. The Billy Bob Thornton classic is a terrific example of the spirit of independent filmmaking and the epitome of a true "breakout performance". This Blu-ray edition arrives with an appreciably improved A/V presentation that will please fans, and an extensive supplemental package to keep viewers busy for hours after the film is over. 'Sling Blade' comes highly recommended. Mmm-hmmm.
All disc reviews at High-Def DVD Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.
Puzzled by the technical jargon in our reviews, or wondering how we assess and rate HD DVD and Blu-ray discs? Learn about our review methodology.