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Film / Sling Blade

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"Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a Kaiser blade."
Karl Childers

A 1996 drama directed, written and starring Billy Bob Thornton, based on a short film called "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade," in which he also starred.

The story's about a mentally challenged man named Karl Childers who, around the age of 12, butchered his mother and her lover with the titular sling blade, because he had always learned from his parents that having sex was wrong (a detail shown in the script and seen in the short film). He was put up in a state mental hospital in Arkansas; our observation of Karl begins 25 years later, when he's about to be released.


This film provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Karl cleaves Doyle's skull "damn near in two" with just two chops of the lawnmower blade he spent all night sharpening.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Poor Frank; Karen Cross (only shown in the extended version) just shot him right down. Gender-flipped and somewhat averted with Karl and his would-be girlfriend, Melinda: Karl: "Flowers is purty." Of course it doesn't go anywhere because shortly afterwards, the rest of the story happens...
  • Abusive Parents: One, being Frank's adoptive father, Doyle. Also, Karl's own father, also (unfortunately) named Frank, who made Karl sleep in the barn because he didn't want him with the rest of the family and made Karl throw out his premature younger brother like he was trash.
  • All There in the Manual: Many details about Karl's upbringing are only in Thornton's short, which only covers the initial interview.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Will you ever kill anybody again, Karl?"
    • Exact Words: "I don't reckon I got no more reason to kill nobody."
  • Asshole Victim: That Doyle, mm-hmm.
  • Berserk Button: Don't push around Frankie's mama in front of him, if you don't want everything within his reach thrown at you. Even Linda seemed shocked by the sudden ferocity in her son.
    • Don't lay a hand on Frankie in front of Karl either. The second Doyle raised his hand, Karl caught it like it was nothing, politely telling him not to do that again.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sure, the horribly abusive monster is out of our protagonists' lives for good, but Karl is, again, locked up in the state hospital. At least he can now stand up for himself against the pervert Charles Bushman.
  • Blatant Lies: Doyle claims he's not afraid of Karl despite it being painfully obvious that he is.
  • Bloodless Carnage: You'd think with the force Karl uses with that blade there'd be a little splatter or at least a little on his hand, but there's none.
  • Bookends: The movie opens and closes with Karl in the mental hospital, gazing out of the window.
  • Bookworm: Karl. He's got a whole bunch of books he carries with him bound by a leather strap; one The Bible, one a book on carpentry, one A Christmas Carol...
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Subverted two ways, as first, because of Frank Childers' senility, he's regressed into a childlike state and unable to respond in a way befitting this trope; and second, Karl doesn't have a vehement bone in his body, at least by the standards of other people; he still summons a good deal of anger, also seen elsewhere, and we do see the rage he could have if he were not retarded, but it's not blatant.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Karl fails terribly at reciting the two-men-on-a-bridge joke.
  • Captain Obvious: Frankie borrows one of Karl's books, A Christmas Carol; Karl: "That's that book on Christmas I was tellin' you about."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Books, all of which he gives to Frank before he leaves. A Christmas Carol has a carefully lettered bookmark in it reading "You Will Be Happy," eliciting an Oh, Crap! moment from Frank as he realizes that Karl knows the only way Frank can be truly happy is if Doyle is dead.
  • Chekhov's Skill: He's really good with machinery, especially lawnmowers and other things with blades....
  • Children Are Innocent: Averted with Frank. You wish it weren't that way, but Doyle has made it so.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Karl. He likes them French-fried potaters, and the way Frank talks. Also, Morris of Doyle's band and his very weird song.
  • Comically Missing the Point: A very dark example here: Charles mistakes Karl's grunts and headshakes as amusement at his perverted stories. Fortunately, Karl is able to set him straight by the end.
  • Drop the Hammer: Karl sure does want to, right on Doyle's head, but he had horrible timing. He changed his pre-emptive strike into the BLAM mentioned in YMMV.
  • Everybody Knew Already: Vaughan wants his homosexuality kept quiet among his friends, but they tell him practically the whole town knows already.
  • Face Palm: When everyone's all together for dinner, Melinda related how she heard about how Vaughan and Albert are a couple; Albert seems a bit amused, but Vaughan's quite embarrassed; fortunately, Linda suggests that Karl and Melinda go out for a walk at that moment; Irony considering she admonished Vaughan for not being too pushy when he suggested that same thing.
  • Friend to All Children: Karl, natch. Of course Frank comes to love him, and the feeling is mutual. Frank's friends also don't really seem to mind him when they finally play football together.
  • Gayngst: Poor Vaughan is constantly angsting about all the dirty rumors and lies circulating about town of his behavior.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Although Karl Childers didn't die, he sacrificed his freedom, by doing Doyle in to help Linda and Frank to live a better life without being pushed around. In the end he's back where he started in the mental institution.
  • Hope Spot: Near the end of the movie: about three or four minutes are spent with no dialog, simply Karl walking around contemplating the situation: he knows if he goes through with it, he'll at the very least be put in jail, but standing at Doyle's house he decides it's in Frank and Linda's best interest. The extended version draws this out by about a minute, to very tense effect.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Karl's final decision about Doyle. He gets his affairs in order with the people he cares about and spends a long time contemplating the choice, but in the end he feels it's the only way he can help them.
  • Idiot Hero: Deep down, Karl is a good man at heart, but has the intelligence of a brick and seems to recognize this about himself.
  • Idiot Savant: Despite his mental limitations, Karl has an unnatural talent for fixing lawnmowers and other machines that trained mechanics have given up on.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Very much averted. The film frequently shows how Karl not only lacks basic social skills but is almost incapable of caring for himself. He also never displays any Rain Man type abilities aside from being an excellent mechanic (which is justified considering that he lived in his parents' shed and had nothing to do but mess around with the lawn mowers and tiller and such inside). Some characters, such as Vaughan, seem to view him as deep and wise, likely to lampshade this trope.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Karl and Frank.
  • Jerk Ass: Doyle Hargraves himself. He brutally ejects his band from his house and threatens Linda and Frank.
    • Even during his Pet the Dog moment where he speaks calmly to his family and Karl, he fails to see that psychological damage is real: "I didn't hit you, did I, Karl? So no apology necessary, I guess." By the way, that's the scene where Doyle discusses moving in with Linda and Frankie for good.
    • Wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call Karl's father one, though his actions before the story are more severe than those of a standard Jerk Ass.
    • Charles Bushman from the beginning and end; this behavior is carried over and toned down a bit from the original short, in which he actively harassed other inmates besides Karl; his stories in both — well, see YMMV.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Seems to be a favorite of Doyle's, to try to make himself seem less of a Jerk Ass. It doesn't work.
  • Kick the Dog: Doyle shoves Terrence, his wheelchair-bound bandmate, against the door of his house while kicking them all out.
  • Lock and Load Montage: The scene where Karl sharpens the Lawnmower Blade.
  • Mama Bear: Linda. Unfortunately, Doyle's sheer meanness and stubbornness prevents her protectiveness from working very well.
  • Manchild:
    • Karl, perhaps, by a combination of his mental slowness, his sheltered and backwards upbringing, and his incarceration.
    • Frank, his father, has some elements of this, probably from going senile; he mutters to himself and claims not to know Karl or what he's talking about, but this latter may be due to his being a Jerk Ass.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Karl?" All four times spoken by characters seeing him for the last time. The fourth, chillingly so.
  • Moral Dissonance: Invoked for the audience, as it is for many films like this. Karl's killing of Doyle is indeed illegal and will get him sent to jail (or back to the state hospital as it turns out). For the safety and security of his new-found loved ones, it is not immoral, and indeed we cheer for Karl at this act.
  • Nails on a Blackboard: The sound of Charles Bushman dragging a metal chair across the entire length of the tile floor in the institution's common room. It establishes him as an attention-hungry sociopath before he says a word.
  • Nice Guy: Vaughan.
  • Orbital Shot: Thornton thought that a half-circle version of this would be a pretty effect, and it's a good establishment for the beginning of the 5+ minute tension building to the climax.
  • Pet the Dog: Doyle actually seems capable of a facade of sweetness from time to time. Too bad he can't hold it too long.
  • Police are Useless: (in the extended version) Because they're Doyle's friends and are a bit lax towards him regarding drinking and driving.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Doyle is misogynistic, homophobic, abelist and a Child Hater.
  • Rant-Inducing Slight: Doyle sure is a mean drunk, and he likes things quiet when he's "hurtin'". When his band talks about the technicalities of being a band a bit TOO much...
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Karl carries a Bible with him everywhere he goes and wishes to be baptized later on in the film. By contrast, Jerk Ass Doyle is shown to be as hostile to Karl's beliefs as he is towards everything else.
  • Restrained Revenge: Karl tells his father he contemplated killing him, but decided that letting him live in his own misery until he dies alone is fair enough.
  • Seemingly Profound Fool: Karl is seen as wise by Vaughan and a few others, but he's really just simple (and single) minded. Also Subverted a few times when Karl shows surprising wisdom. Despite his own personal discomfort with homosexuals, he recognizes that Vaughan is the only decent man in Frank's life and implores him to be a father figure to him. This insight moves Vaughan to tears at the end.
    Karl: That boy, Frank, he lives inside of his own heart. That's an awful big place to live in. You take care of that boy.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: All F-words in the movie, save for two that were said by Johnson, were from Doyle.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Perhaps a more minor example, as Charles was not really a major villain, but Karl lays into him good at the end when he talks pervertedly about his friendship with Frank.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: A man who owns a repair shop spends hours trying to figure out why a small engine won't start. Karl then points out that it doesn't have any gas.
  • Straight Gay: Vaughan, played by the late John Ritter, who once played a man acting like he was gay. Averted with Albert Sellers, who despite having only a couple of lines, surely shows his personality.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Karl loves him some French-fried potaters and biscuits with mustard. He'll also take a couple of cans of that Potted Meat, if'n you have any ex-try, mm-hmm.
  • Tranquil Fury: From the moment he states his intentions to murder Doyle, right to the moment he hacks the lawnmower blade into his head and waits for the cops after calling them, he's perfectly calm about the situation.
  • Verbal Tic: Karl's guttural tone, and his use of "Mmm-hmm."
  • Wham Line:
    Doyle: What are you doing with that lawnmower blade?
    Karl: I aim to kill you with it.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Frankie's criticism of Karl for burying his barely-alive premature brother takes on this tone, despite Karl's being much too young (and mentally challenged to boot) to understand about caring for a child.
  • Wife-Basher Basher: How Karl responds to Doyle who is brutalizing Linda and her son Frank.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: In a decidedly more metaphorical sense than the common usage, Karl. We do have a great deal of sympathy for him, for his naivete and his just seeming lost in the huge world (near the beginning, he even goes back to the asylum and requests to stay there, because he has no idea how to be a free man), but he still exerts a large amount of influence on those he meets. Linda, Frank and Vaughan are changed positively for their experience with him (they get a new appreciation for people who are a little different), while Doyle's life is cut short simply because he refuses to change, and Karl's protector instinct kicks in (for an example of this, see the CMOA above).
  • Your Cheating Heart: Apparently the reason for Karl's acts (his mom cheating on his dad, that is) which landed him in the state hospital, but as mentioned in the description, a bit more detail is given in the script and short film.


Example of: