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Film / Sling Blade

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"Some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade. It's kindly a long, wood handle, kinda like an axe handle. With a long blade on it shaped kindly like a bananer. Mhm. Sharp on one edge, and dull on the other. Mhm. It's what the highway boys use to cut down weeds and whatnot."
Karl Childers

A 1996 drama film 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 teenaged 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.

John Ritter and Dwight Yoakam co-star in the film, and Robert Duvall has a brief cameo as Karl's father.

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.
  • Adaptation Name Change: The college students interviewing Karl in the original short film were named Teresa Tatum and Francis Moorman. Here, they are named Marsha Dwiggens and Theresa Evans.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: The college reporters in the short film were more short-tempered and made a few ableist comments about the patients. Both of these traits are toned down considerably in this film.
  • 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 afterward, the rest of the story happens...
  • Abusive Parents: One, being Frankie'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."
  • Armor-Piercing Response: "Bible says the same thing about killin' others, too." ["If you do that, you go off to Hades..."]
  • Asshole Victim:
    • That Doyle, mm-hmm. He's thoroughly unpleasant in every scene he's in, so absolutely no tears shed for him.
    • Jesse Dixon, the teenage boy that Karl's mother slept with before Karl killed them is said by Karl to have been a cruel person who bullied Karl and took advantage of many girls and women. Scooter, Karl's co-worker at Bill Cox's shop, admits that he always wanted to kill Jesse himself.
    • Karl's mother, an abusive parent who didn't allow Karl to live in the house, forcing him to sleep in the tool shed.
  • Benevolent Boss: Bill Cox. He hires Karl to work at his repair shop and lets him stay in the backroom (until he moves in with the Wheatleys). He also buys Karl and Scooter lunch on a regular basis and helps Karl adjust to life outside the mental hospital.
  • Berserk Button: Karl is a passive and meek man because of his disabilities and social isolation, but will not tolerate anyone harming or saying anything against his friend Frank.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The normally passive and shy Karl, who passively listens to Charles Bushman's disgusting accounts of his sex offenses and tolerates threats, insults, and ridicule from Doyle, becomes anything but passive the moment Doyle threatens to physically harm Frank and when Charles makes perverted remarks about Karl's friendship with Frank.
  • Big Fancy House: (Not in the theatrical version, but in the extended directors cut) Where Karen Cross lives, with her parents and their maid. We only see the outside, and a little bit of the foyer, but it's enough to see it is the richest place in the film, a deep contrast to everything else. It may not even be in Millsberg proper.
  • 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.
    • It's also implied that Karl may have preferred the secure life in the state hospital, saying that the outside world was "too big" for him, so this may actually be a straight Happy Ending for Karl.
  • Blatant Lies: Doyle claims he's not afraid of Karl despite it being painfully obvious that he is.
    • He also claims that he and Linda wouldn't have a bad word between them if not for Frankie, but that's not likely at all due to just how "asshole-ish" Doyle 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.
    • Partly averted in that both in the film's opening and closing scenes, Charles Bushman tells Karl stories about his perverted exploits. However, while Karl passively sits and listens during the opening scene, in the final scene he tells Charles to shut up and never to speak to him again.
  • 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, but it's not blatant.
  • The Cameo:
    • Robert Duvall appears briefly in a scene as Karl's estranged father.
    • Film director and musician Jim Jarmusch appears as the Frostee Cream employee.
  • 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 Frankie. You wish it weren't that way, but Doyle has made it so. At least once Frankie claims to want to kill Doyle for the abuse he deals out to his mother and him, and we actually believe it. On some level, Karl believes it too, which contributes to his killing of Doyle, so Frankie would not have that stain on his soul.
  • 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 lyrics.
  • 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.
    • Karl himself frequently misses the point due to his limited intelligence and tendency to take everything literally. For instance, when Jerry mentions to Karl that he'll have to tell his future boss about his [criminal] history, Karl responds by saying that he never was very good at history in school.
  • Control Freak: Doyle. Either he's oblivious to its effect on poor Frankie, who admits to being nervous all the time, or he just doesn't care.
    • He shows early signs of this when he forces Frankie to take salad dressing, which he didn't want.
    • Secondly, he brutally ejects his band from Linda's house, repeatedly referring to it as 'his'.
    • Much more seriously, later on, he announces plans to stay with Linda and Frankie permanently so he may continue to control them and "his" household the way he wants. This is the beginning of Karl's making plans of his own...
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Karl is a quiet and typically passive mentally handicapped man. However, he's very physically strong, and when pushed is willing to use that strength. We first see this when he effortlessly grabs and stops Doyle's arm in midair and warns him not to lay a hand on Frankie. When Doyle continues with the same abusive behavior, it doesn't end well for him...
    • It's strongly implied that Charles Bushman might meet a similar end if he doesn't heed Karl's warning not to say another word about "the boy" or indeed if he ever speaks to Karl again.
  • Cruel Mercy: Karl tells Frank Childers, his drunk and senile father, that he had considered murdering him as revenge for the way he and his prematurely born younger brother were treated. Karl then remarks that there's no point in killing him because what remains of his father's pathetic life is punishment enough.
  • Death Glare:
    • When Frankie first takes Karl home and meets Doyle, Frankie doesn't like how Doyle continually insults and belittles Karl, and when he isn't actively telling Doyle to stop (being instantly verbally smacked down), he's giving Doyle one of these.
    • Frankie gives Doyle an angry, disbelieving stare all through his speech about how he's sorry, that he's going to change, and how it would be better if he was over with Frankie and Linda more often.
    • It's similar to his default look, but we can definitely tell Karl is putting all his rage into his gaze at his father when he goes to confront him.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Poor Frankie... Karen Cross just moves too fast for him, is strongly discouraged by her parents from seeing him. The Crosses' maid tries to save Frankie some heartache, but Frankie really wants to give Karen some flowers. Afterward, Frankie likes to imagine this trope didn't happen; it gives him some measure of happiness, at least.
  • Dirty Coward: Doyle only physically bullies those who can't or won't retaliate. When he throws out his band members in a drunken rage, the only one he dares to be physically violent towards is a man in a wheelchair. Similarly, in spite of all of his bravado about not being afraid of Karl, it's clear in the scene where Karl grabs his arm to protect Frank (and when Karl wanders into the bedroom at night with a hammer) that Doyle treads pretty carefully around him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Frankie's dad was, before the events of the film, because he felt guilty about not being a good provider to Frankie and Linda. Karl believes that the Bible says that those who do kill themselves go off to Hades, but Frankie replies that it says that about people who kill others too. This may have also strongly fed into Karl's fateful decision at 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Karl is introduced just sitting silently by the window in the state hospital. He displays obvious discomfort at Charles Bushman's grotesque stories of his 'exploits' on the outside, but cannot voice them yet. At the very end, he's able to.
    • Frankie is shown as a hard-working, responsible boy who is open-minded enough to accept help from a stranger who offers it.
    • Doyle is introduced talking down about people different from him and is shown to be a lazy, alcoholic boor with a mean streak.
    • Vaughan is (more subtly) introduced as quite protective of Linda and Frankie, though he speaks more on that when he and Karl have lunch together; they're more like his family than his real family was.
  • Everybody Knew Already: Vaughan wants his homosexuality kept quiet among his friends, but they tell him practically the whole town knows already.
  • Extremely Protective Child: 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.
  • 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. He strongly believes that Children Are Innocent, believing all the bad experiences of life should be saved up for grown people to experience. 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 the town of his behavior.
  • Half-Witted Hillbilly: A rare tragic example of the trope, although, unlike most other examples, Karl's low intellect is the product of an actual disability rather than his rural upbringing.
  • Hate Sink: Doyle is an abusive, violent, foul-mouthed, and bigoted man with no apparent redeeming personal qualities.
  • 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.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Doyle and his band-mates really believe that they'll get "paying gigs", completely oblivious to how bad their playing is.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Doyle seems to be this, seeing as how he's incredibly hostile towards Karl's Christian beliefs. He never outright says he doesn't believe in God, but he does say that he "doesn't understand" the Bible and immediately after asks Karl "Just how retarded are you?"
  • Hollywood Autism: We're never told what mental handicap Karl was diagnosed with, but his combination of repetitive, obsessive behaviors (grunting, hand-rubbing), lack of social skills and comprehension of social situations, and savant-like mechanical skills suggest autism. It's also implied that many of Karl's disabilities are relatively mild (he can read, do skilled work) and were exacerbated by his abusive, neglectful upbringing.
  • 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.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: In a cut scene after Doyle's blowup against his band, we see Linda trying to reassure Frankie that they will leave Doyle eventually, but that the time has to be right; she believes they can wait out Doyle, that it'd be better if he were to become bored with them and want them to leave. Of course, she reckons without his Control Freak tendencies, which were slightly foreshadowed earlier but are made clearer later in the movie.
  • 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.
  • I Have No Son!: Karl tracks down his father and this is said father's reaction to seeing his son. This angers Karl enough to tell him off, saying that while he's considered killing him, he realizes that it wouldn't be worth it as his father is alone and senile.
  • Informed Ability: Morris is described as a "genius" and "a poet - like from olden times" by Doyle. The lyrics Morris composes suggest that he's anything but.
  • 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 Idiot Savant-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 lawnmowers 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.
  • In Vino Veritas: When Doyle is deep into his drink, he lets his truths come out quite strongly. Nowhere is this more evident in the scene when his band is hanging out at Linda's house; he does show a bit of Tranquil Fury at the beginning, saying that he would prefer some peace and quiet while he's "hurting" - but when the band seems oblivious to this, eventually he springs up and throws his bottle through the window and screams at them, giving a withering "Reason You Suck" Speech to everyone present, along with claiming he is the Only Sane Man and some pretty horrible threats, before kicking them all out.
  • Jerkass: 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 Jerkass.
    • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Doyle is absolutely correct to tell Linda that letting a man who had been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital live in her garage is probably not the best idea, because usually people are committed to mental institutions for being a danger to society rather than simply for being mentally retarded. Even though Karl proved to be kind to Frankie and Linda, any mother who would let a complete stranger recently released from a psychiatric hospital live in her house and be so close with her son obviously hasn't thought things through very much (then again, Doyle was Linda's choice of boyfriend, so good judgment isn't exactly Linda's strong point).
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Seems to be a favorite of Doyle's, to try to make himself seem less of a Jerkass. 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 prevent her protectiveness from working very well.
  • Mama's Boy: Karl pegs Frankie as one, opining that he wouldn't know what to do without Linda.
  • Manchild:
    • Karl, perhaps, by a combination of his mental slowness, his sheltered and backward 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 Jerkass.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": When Doyle kicks his band out, at first everyone just sits there, stunned at how suddenly angry and loud Doyle is being, so Doyle has to be more physically and verbally abusive. The Johnson almost seems on the verge of tears when telling Doyle off. There may also be a bit of a Thousand-Yard Stare effect as everyone tries to avoid losing it themselves at the withering abuse, having experienced it before, but it's shocking every time it happens.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When Doyle asks Karl what he was institutionalized for, Karl gives a technically correct and truthful answer that focuses on the wrong part of Doyle's sentence:
    Doyle: So, was you in lockup for cutting someone up with a hatchet or something?
    Karl: I ain't never used no hatchet that I can remember [he used a sling blade].
  • Meaningful Echo: "Karl?" All four times spoken by characters seeing him for the last time, and realizing things with Karl are about to fundamentally change.
  • Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency: Played with. Karl is a mentally handicapped man who spent most of his life in a psychiatric institution. While Karl is kind and caring towards people who reciprocate his friendship and has a traditional concept of morality and justice, his only solution to major moral problems in his life (whether it's his adulterous mother or his friend's abusive stepfather) is to murder the offending individuals.
  • 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.
  • No Social Skills: Karl, due to a combination of being mentally handicapped, years of abuse and neglect as a child, and many more years spent in a mental institution. He's initially unable to make eye contact with most people or carry on either small talk or a more substantive conversation. This becomes averted somewhat as his friendship with Frankie develops.
  • One-Steve Limit: Frankie Wheatley is *not* to be confused with Frank Childers, Karl's father.
  • 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.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Don't lay a hand on Frankie in front of Karl. The second Doyle raised his hand, Karl caught it like it was nothing, politely telling him not to do that again.
    • Vaughan is protective over Frankie and during his meal with Karl, he gave a polite warning that the other man not hurt Frankie (or Linda).
  • 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, ableist, and a Child Hater.
  • 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, Jerkass Doyle is shown to be as hostile to Karl's beliefs as he is towards everything else.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Jerry Woolridge who runs the state hospital, while not able to take Karl back in after releasing him because of regulations, takes Karl into his home instead before taking him to work at his friend's place.
    • Bill Cox runs a small power equipment repair shop; this is perfect for Karl with his skill set. After somewhat of a gaffe in which he locks Karl in for a night after work is done, he quickly realizes that this is "not Christian" of him and gives him a key so Karl can go as he pleases. He continuously praises his talented employee and regularly buys him and his assistant lunch, as well as gives him advice on how to spend his time when not working. He also serves as a lightly-applied Shipper on Deck for Karl and Melinda when she comes to visit him at work; he gives them some time alone by going to get lunch early.
  • 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.
  • Sex Signals Death: Karl kills his mother and her teenage lover Jesse Dixon with a sling blade when he catches them on the floor of the house in the act.
  • 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.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Apart from his savant-like mechanical skills, on the surface Karl seems hopelessly lost in the world. However, he understands what's going on around him much more than his appearance or manner would suggest, which is made particularly clear in his last conversation with Vaughan.
  • 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.
  • Stylistic Suck: The music played by Doyle's band, if it could be called playing or music. Especially funny to watch because in real-life, all of the actors portraying Doyle's band members (including Dwight Yoakam as Doyle) were successful professional singer-songwriters.
    • As bad as the music is, the gibberish lyrics written by the "genius" Morris are even worse.
  • 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: At the climax, Karl is very calm, even conversational when confronting Doyle, maintaining this demeanour even as he states his intentions to murder him before following through with his threat, calling the police and then patiently waiting for them.
  • Verbal Tic: Karl's guttural tone, and his use of "Mmm-hmm."
  • Wham Line:
    Doyle: What the hell 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. He quickly takes it back, though.
  • 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).
  • Word Salad Lyrics: The gibberish song lyrics written and recited by Morris in Doyle's band.
    Morris: ...partin' the waters of the medulla oblongata...of mankind!