Open main menu

Sling Blade is a 1996 American neo-noir[2] drama film written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also stars in the lead role. Set in rural Arkansas (filmed in Benton, Arkansas) the film tells the story of a man named Karl Childers who has an intellectual disability and is released from a psychiatric hospital, where he has lived since killing his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old, and the friendship he develops with a young boy and his mother. In addition to Thornton, it stars Dwight Yoakam, J. T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, James Hampton, and Robert Duvall.

Sling Blade
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBilly Bob Thornton
Produced byLarry Meistrich
David L. Bushell
Brandon Rosser
Screenplay byBilly Bob Thornton
Based onSome Folks Call It a Sling Blade
by Billy Bob Thornton
Music byDaniel Lanois
CinematographyBarry Markowitz
Edited byHughes Winborne
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release date
  • November 27, 1996 (1996-11-27)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million[1]
Box office$24.4 million[1]

The film was adapted by Thornton from his previous screenplay for the short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, directed by George Hickenlooper. Sling Blade proved to be a sleeper hit, launching Thornton into stardom. It won the Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, and Thornton was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The music for the soundtrack was provided by French Canadian artist/producer Daniel Lanois.



Karl Childers is an intellectually disabled Arkansas man, who has been in the custody of the state mental hospital since the age of 12, for having killed his mother and her lover. Although he had been thoroughly institutionalized, Karl is deemed fit to be released into the outside world. Prior to his release, he is interviewed by a local college newspaper reporter, and he recounts committing the murders with a kaiser blade, saying, "Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a kaiser blade." Karl explains that he attended school with his father's boss' teenage son Jesse Dixon, who was a mean-spirited bully and pervert; he thought that Jesse was raping his mother, and decapitated him. When he discovered that his mother was a willing participant in the affair, he killed her also.

Thanks to the doctor in charge of his institutionalization, Karl, who is highly skilled at repairing small engines, lands a job at a repair shop in the small town where he was born and raised. He befriends 12-year-old Frank Wheatley, and shares some of the details of his past, including the killings. Frank reveals that his father was killed when he was hit by a train, leaving him and his mother on their own. He later admits that he lied, and that his father committed suicide.

Frank introduces Karl to his mother, Linda, and her gay friend, Vaughan Cunningham. Vaughan is the manager of the dollar store where Linda works. Despite Vaughan's concerns about Karl's history in the mental hospital, Linda allows him to move into her garage, which angers Linda's abusive alcoholic boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves. Karl bonds with Linda, who makes him biscuits to eat. Vaughan invites Karl to lunch where he explains that a gay man and a mentally challenged man face similar obstacles of intolerance, and ridicule, in small-town America, before warning Karl about Doyle's violent demeanor, as well as his fears that Doyle might hurt or kill Linda and Frank.

Karl quickly becomes a father figure to Frank, who misses his father, and despises Doyle, who becomes increasingly abusive towards everybody including his own friends. Eventually, Doyle, who is also the frontman of his own band, has a drunken outburst towards his fellow band members and kicks them out, and attempts to do the same with Karl and Vaughan. Linda tries kicking Doyle out of the house, despite his threats to kill her if she ever left him, and this leads to a physical confrontation with Linda and Frank, angering the boy, who throws things at Doyle until he finally leaves.

Things begin to look up for Karl, as he becomes more and more successful at his job, and is even set up on a date with Melinda, a coworker of Linda and Vaughan's, at a dinner party at Vaughan's house in which Linda, Frank, and Vaughan's partner Albert also attend. Despite this, however, Karl is haunted by an incident that happened when he was 6 or 8 years old. His parents performed an abortion of his unwanted baby brother, causing the baby to "come out too soon," and Karl was given a bloody towel wrapped around the baby, which survived the abortion. Karl was instructed to "get rid of it," but when Karl detected movement inside the towel, he inspected it, discovering "a little ol' boy" that "wasn't no bigger than a squirrel." While recounting this story to Frank, Frank asks why Karl did not just keep the baby, to which Karl replies that he had no way to care for a baby. He placed the baby, still in the bloody towel, inside a shoe box and buried the baby alive, saying he felt it was better to just "return him to the good Lord right off the bat," because of the abuse and neglect he received at the hands of his own parents.

A few days later, Linda and Doyle reconcile, who announces his plan to move into the house permanently, and to one day "pop the question" to Linda, much to Frank's anger. After a lot of thinking, Karl visits his father, who has become a mentally unbalanced hermit, living in the dilapidated home where Karl grew up. The father claims he doesn't recognize Karl and doesn't even have a son. He tells his father that killing his baby brother was wrong, and that he had wanted to kill his father for making him do it, but eventually decided that he was not worth the effort.

Knowing that he has the upper hand again, Doyle confronts Karl and Frank shortly after Karl's baptism, and announces "big changes" including Karl's removal from the house and Frank kowtowing to Doyle from now on. Karl ponders killing Doyle. Doyle attempts to attack Frank when he counters him, which is stopped by Karl who warns Doyle never to touch Frank again, to no avail. Karl begins to realize that, eventually, either Frank is going to kill Doyle and end up just like him, or that Doyle's abuse will end up killing Frank and Linda. In order to prevent this, Karl makes Frank promise to spend the night at Vaughan's house. Karl then goes to Vaughan's house and asks Vaughan to pick up Linda from her place, and have her stay over also; he then tells Vaughan that, even though homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible, that he doesn't think the Lord would ever send someone as nice as him to Hell, and that he doesn't have to "go with women" to be a good father to Frank.

Karl returns to Linda's house, but seems undecided about whether to enter. When confronted, a drunk Doyle asks what Karl is doing with the lawnmower blade he had sharpened and fashioned into a weapon. Karl replies, "I aim to kill you with it," but not before asking how to reach the police by telephone. Not taking Karl seriously, Doyle facetiously says Karl should dial 911 and request "an ambulance or a hearse." Karl kills Doyle with two chopping blows of the lawnmower blade to the head. Karl then phones the police to turn himself in, and requests a hearse be sent for Doyle. He eats biscuits and mustard while waiting for the police.

Returned to the state hospital, he seems to be a different person than he was during his previous institutionalization. He silences a sexual predator who had previously forced him to listen to tales of his horrible deeds, before standing to look out of the window towards a field, having learned the value of sacrificing one's self to save others.



Critical responseEdit

The film garnered both critical and commercial success. It grossed $24,444,121 on a $1 million budget. The film received a 96% "Certified Fresh" rating by Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.3 out of 10, with 49 critics giving generally favorable reviews and only two negative reviews; the site's consensus states "You will see what's coming, but the masterful performances, especially Thornton's, will leave you riveted."[3]

The Washington Post called it a "masterpiece of Southern storytelling."[4] Kevin Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the film is "a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative".[5] The New York Times critic Janet Maslin praised the performances but said that "it drifts gradually toward climactic events that seem convenient and contrived".[6]

Awards and nominationsEdit


  1. ^ a b "Sling Blade (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2016-04-30.
  2. ^ Naremore, James (2008). More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (2d ed.). Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25402-2.
  3. ^ "Sling Blade Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-07-26.
  4. ^ Kempsey, Rita (February 7, 1997). "'Sling Blade': Incisive". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 18, 2016. Retrieved November 1, 2017. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help); Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |work= (help)
  5. ^ Thomas, Kevin (November 27, 1996). "Gripping 'Blade' Crosses Folksy, Frightening". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on May 9, 2014. Retrieved November 1, 2017. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help); Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |work= (help)
  6. ^ Maslin, Janet (September 30, 1996). "Rejoining A World Left Behind". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 20, 2017. Retrieved November 1, 2017. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help); Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |work= (help)

External linksEdit