In 1996, the Cannes Film Festival passed on a small independent film called Sling Blade. The movie was written, directed, and starred in by the then virtually unknown Billy Bob Thornton. The movie earned Thornton two Academy Award nominations - Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay--the latter which he would go on to win. The origin of the film began years earlier in a dressing room. Thornton, who was frustrated with the quality of his latest bit part, began making faces in the mirror and improving lines. In that moment the character Karl came to life. Thornton continued to develop Karl, and eventually used the character in a one man stage show called Swine Before Pearls. Thornton had an affinity for Karl, which was a symbolic manifestation of several people he had met and grew up with in Arkansas. As he continued to develop Karl, Thornton seen the potential to create something special. In 1994 he wrote and starred in a short film called Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade. Directed by George Hickenlooper, the short also starred veteran actor J.T. Walsh and Molly Ringwald. The black and white movie would become the starting platform for feature film.
After Thornton shared his script for Sling Blade, Meistrich agreed to produce the film. Billy Bob quickly went to work, pitching the roles he had written to each person who inspired the character. The only major part that needed to be cast was the role of Frank Wheatly, the boy who Karl would befriend. After auditioning over one hundred kids without success, Thornton reached out to a friend of a friend for help. Shortly after, he received a home made audition tape in the mail for Lucas Black. Thornton watched only thirty seconds of the tape before offering Black the role. “It was really sweet,” Thornton recalls during one of the film’s bonus features, “You could tell they (Lucas and his mother) worked on it all day because the shadows randomly move across the whole backyard throughout the entire tape.”
Sling Blade revolves around Karl, a mentally challenged man with a limited education. The film begins the day Karl is released from a mental hospital after begin declared “fit for society.” Karl’s introduction mirrors Thornton’s short. Besides Billy Bob, the only person to reprise their role is J.T. Walsh, who plays a sexually deviant inmate with a knack for talking too much. Walsh, who was filming Oliver Stone’s Nixon at the time, got permission to leave the set for one day to play the role. After his release from the hospital, Karl struggles to adjust to life and eventually befriends a boy named Frank, who is also struggling to adjust to life after the death of his father.
Sling Blade is a classic southern gothic tale. The film’s conflicted viewpoints on religion is on par with similar themes expressed by southern authors Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. In the director’s commentary, Thornton confesses that Sling Blade “is not a knock on religion, in fact it kind of supports it. It shows that only when it gets in the hands of the wrong people is when it is bad.” Country music star Dwight Yoakam gives a powerful performance as Doyle Hargraves. Yoakam portrays the prejudiced character to the extreme, bringing to the screen a vile and despicable human being. Through harsh and insensitive outbursts, Yoakam’s performance reminds viewers that sometimes the smallest scales of cruelty are often the most sinister. His manipulative dominance gives viewers an intimate look at what many women endure in trapped and abusive relationships. It also reveals the pain an entire family can suffer when a dominate individual attempts to control another for their own selfish gain.
To help prepare for his role, John Ritter gave his character Vaughan the last name Cunningham, after Chuck Cunningham from Happy Days. Chuck was the older brother to Ritchie and Jonnie on the classic television series. He disappears completely after season two without an explanation. He wasn't written out of the script, and there was never a clue given as to what happens to him. Season three of Happy Days begins as if he never existed. Ritter approached his role as if he was Chuck Cunningham, having came out to his family only to have them disown him and never speak to him again. It isn't far fetched to think with Ritter's unique approach that Chuck could have changed his name to Vaughan after leaving home. There is certainly an element of sadness to Ritter's role, and in light of his approach, it explains how he was able to convey the sentimentally broken personality of Vaughan’s character. The role also gave audiences a look at just how talented Ritter was. When most people hear the name John Ritter, they think of the comedy Three's Company and Jack Tripper flopping over a couch. Thornton wanted to disguise Ritter’s appearance as much as possible. “When watching a film, most viewers will acknowledge the actor first, and then the character they play” Thornton explains, “and when I do a film, I want to do the exact opposite.” During filming, Thornton rarely took more than two takes of each scene, a practice he felt captured the most honest performance. In fact, the scene between Thornton and Robert Duvall is entirely improvised, highlighting the talents both these men brought to the film.
Sling Blade was shot in twenty-four days in various locations in Benton, Arkansas. It was a grass roots production, and the cast often had to change on set, or in gas station bathrooms. Producer Larry Meistrich was still raising funds for the film when production started, and eventually had to use an American Express card to help finance some of the film. After a preview screening, the movie was quickly purchased by Miramax Films. Thornton had to fight to keep the title after Miramax executives suggested they change the name of the film to The Reckoning. While the definition of the word ‘reckoning’ shared some of the themes in the film, there was one problem. Karl was fond of using the term “I reckon” when talking with others. It’s a popular southern expression, and Thornton (who didn’t want to change the title to begin with) felt the name change would give the expression a hokeyness in the film.
-Lee L. Lind