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" I can’t believe Liberace was gay "
— Mike Myers, Austin Powers

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The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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It has been ten years since Sling Blade opened — nine if you don’t live on the coasts, but who’s counting? To celebrate its anniversary, Miramax is releasing the Collector’s Series edition of the movie on DVD. It has a director’s cut of the film (now 148 minutes long, up from 135 in the theatrical release), an updated commentary track, and three hours of bonus material.

Sling Blade is the brainchild of writer, director, and star Billy Bob Thornton, then a bit player in movies and TV. Now a household name, Thornton adds legitimacy to movies like The Alamo and Friday Night Lights. He’s the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a genuine southerner, thanks in large part to the success of Sling Blade.

In Sling Blade, Thornton plays the unforgettable Karl Childers. Karl has become such an icon that almost anyone can do “the voice” and say something like “reckon I could go for some french-fried purtaters, mmm-hmmm” and be recognized. Far from being haunted by his role, as so many typecast actors are, Thornton seems genuinely grateful for the success Karl Childers brought him.

Reckon it's been ten years already? Mmmm hmmm.
Reckon it’s been ten years already? Mmmm hmmm.

Karl, if you’ll recall, is released from the “nervous hospital” where he was sent after killing his mother with a sling blade (“some folks call it a kaiser blade, I call it a sling blade”). The warden finds him a job with a local lawnmower repair shop, where Karl’s mechanical genius is allowed to shine. He befriends quite a few people in the town — his co-workers, the employees down at Hoochie’s dollar store, and one young boy named Frank.

Karl and Frank take a shine to each other. “I like the way you talk,” says Frank, speaking for everyone in town and in the audience. So when Frank and his mother are threatened and abused by her drunken boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam making a hell of an acting debut), Karl weighs his moral options.

DVD Extras

Sling Blade has an optional audio commentary track recorded by Thornton. The first thing he says is that most of the audio commentary is recycled from a previous release, a fact I was glad to know in advance. The modern-day Thornton cuts in when a restored scene plays, although the transition between the two isn’t entirely clear. In any case, the audio commentary is sub-par. There is an occasional nugget of information, such as Thornton’s dislike of the color red in movies, but just as often he’ll say something empty of meaning such as “Karl doesn’t like what he’s hearing.”

Sling Blade comes on two DVDs. Except for the audio commentary, the extra features fill the second disc. And I do mean fill. Three screens of options are available for starters, and many of these options are an hour long.

Most of the extra features are interviews with actors and filmmakers. The first one, Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood, is a good overview of Thornton’s rags-to-riches career. His humble beginnings were nothing compared to the years of humility he spent in Los Angeles making pizzas during the good times, and starving nearly to death in the bad times. His first big role was in One False Move, a tight little crime drama from 1992, although it wasn’t until Sling Blade that one could really say that he had made it.

Talking Heads

Two of the other longer features are Bravo Profiles: Billy Bob Thornton and A Roundtable Discussion featuring Thornton and his musician friends. There are also video conversations with Thornton, Robert Duvall, and composer Daniel Lanois. Individually, any one of these segments would be an interesting companion piece to the feature film, but collectively, they start to repeat and blur together. And after watching the gorgeously photographed feature, you may tire of seeing one talking head after another.

I won’t go so far as to say that the extra features should have been trimmed down. But a little more organization would have helped. Chapter titles are chosen for their cleverness, and not their descriptiveness. One chapter is called “Billy imitates Duvall,” but it’s actually about co-star Richard Dial, who made his acting debut in Sling Blade. And maybe some sort of top-level grouping would have helped in navigating all the extras.

Credit Miramax, though, for including a decent booklet in the DVD case. The sixteen-pager is mostly fluff, but there is a four-page interview from a 1997 issue of Esquire, and a list of all the features on both discs.

Notably missing is the short film Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade on which this feature was based.

Picture and Sound

Sling Blade is ten years old. The color and picture quality are still very good, but it’s possible to see a few specks if you look hard enough. None of these will detract from your enjoyment of the movie, though.

The sound quality is excellent. The DVD is encoded in Dolby Digital surround sound. Where you will notice the sound the most is in Daniel Lanois’ versatile, mood-setting score. In the opening sequence where Karl tells his story to a reporter, the haunting electronic music builds into a stomping drumbeat that had me reaching for the remote to turn down the volume lest we wake the neighbors. (Or should that be counted against the sound quality, having too great a dynamic range?)

Conclusion

In some ways, it’s hard to believe Sling Blade has been around for ten years. It’s such a great film that it doesn’t seem to have aged a bit (although neither the child actor nor the drunken boyfriend character are as believable as I remembered). On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that after only ten years, Sling Blade — and the Karl Childers character — have become so embedded in our popular culture. However you look at it, Sling Blade is probably one of the best American films in this past decade, and if you haven’t seen it since the 1990s, it’s time to see it again.