Saturday, November 17, 2007

48. US director and actor Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (1996): A minor 'Citizen Kane'


It would be missing the forest for the trees to merely state that the story of Thornton's film and/or the performances were stunning.

No doubt the screenplay is good, if not captivating, in structure. The prologue before the credits balances the measured calmness that follows the remainder of the prologue of the film. Both segments have an uneasy and unreal muteness that is deafening to the viewers' sensibilities. The chair dragged by J.T. Walsh makes a noise that irritates you, while preparing you for the rest of the movie. The deliberately darkened room for the interview with the school girl seemed out-of-place for an inmate about to be released into the sunny world of freedom. The screenplay does seem to dig at a layer beyond the obvious—a corrections system that is far from perfect. The response of the lead character to J.T. Walsh at the end of the movie offers more for the viewer to re-evaluate what has preceded in the film. Having viewed Lars von Trier's Dogville, within hours of viewing Sling Blade, I could not but the see the parallels that emerge in both films—the vigilante element in the best among us and a critical appraisal of society we live in. Is it the sick person that takes the center stage or is the sick framework in our society taking the spotlight? Neither film is religious but both are asking humanistic and theological questions of the viewer.

Thornton's performance is interesting and in many ways comparable to Malkovich's performance in Of Mice and Men or Duvall's performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. Are the viewers mesmerized by the actor's performance or by the writer Thornton's character? In my view the character Karl in Sling Blade is more interesting than the performance of Thornton. The director Thornton exploits the physical imperfections of the actor Thornton. Unlike Giullieta Masina in La Strada or Sir John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, the rare examples the performances outdid the character, Thornton, Malkovich and Duvall have all presented powerful imperfect characters that interest the viewer more than the performers. Thornton was able to gain the viewer's attention with his gait (with crushed glass in his shoes), his voice, and his facial contortions. In my view, Thornton was more impressive as an actor in Monster's Ball because the character was less "attractive" to the viewer.

Thornton's cast weave a quilt of outstanding brief performances: J.T. Walsh in the hospital, Duvall as the father, and Ritter as the endearing gay character.

More than the performance or the screenplay, the finest part of the film was the music. Now Thornton himself is a drummer and musician. Thornton, the director, was able to get top-notch strains of music from Daniel Lanois that embellished the film. I think the film would have been a lot less impressive without the music which was evocative and yet not intrusive. This includes the singing during the baptism sequence. It is a film that cajoles a sensitive viewer to pay attention to the intelligent management of the soundtrack.

Thornton needs to be commended for his care in managing the sound throughout the movie. Apart from the dragging of the chair at the start of the film, the sound department did a marvelous job (you see this in films of Michael Mann, Terence Mallick and Julie Taymor among contemporary US filmmakers).

All in all, the movie belonged to Billy Bob Thornton—director, screenplay writer, and actor. An amazing effort indeed, almost recalling the more sophisticated effort of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!

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