Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sling Blade

The shoot at Mount Rushmore for the What A Friend We Have in Cheeses campaign did not go as smoothly as we had all hoped. I arrived at the lodge in my palatial motor home and changed into my new Gaultier Roquefort dress and head piece before joining the lovely people of the Zion AME choir for a brief rehearsal prior to the shoot. The arrangement of Nearer My Gouda to Thee, done for us by Wayne Newton, allows me to show off my belting chest voice and we were really rocking along while the technicians set up the forty foot exploding Cheez-Whiz pots which would shoot streamers of dairy product up behind us while we performed. The tourists found our set up quite enthralling and we had several tour groups from Japan who insisted in joining in, using pots from the restaurant as taiko drums.

After rehearsal, the choir gathered on the edge of the rail overlooking the famous sculpture while I began my tap routine down the walk of flags as the cameras rolled. I reached the end of my cadenza and the special effects folks hit the buttons to set off the cheese pots. Unfortunately, someone had miscalculated the amount of charge and the cheese streamers, instead of sailing silkily into the air, blasted everywhere, covering the choir and me with orange goo. There were even strings of yellow orange gunk hanging out of Jefferson's nostrils. The Rapid City hazmat team had to be called out and we were all herded off to decontamination - my poor Gaultier was absolutely ruined. Joseph, my manager, is looking in on how this unfortunate accident occurred. I feel sure that it was intentional international terrorism directed at an American icon, me.

Smelling strongly of Lysol, I repaired back to my motor home and slipped in a film to help me unwind from the day's rigors. My choice was Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade from 1996. Thornton had invented the character of Karl Childers for a play and a short film several years earlier, eventually gaining financing for developing the material into a feature film. The movie was a major success for him, launching him in Hollywood as a force to be reckoned with as an actor, writer and director, winning him an Oscar for screenplay.

Karl Childers (Thornton) is an enigma. As a young adolescent, following years of horrific abuse at the hands of his parents, he commits a brutal double murder and is remanded to the state home for the criminally insane. As the film opens, he is being released. The state has declared him cured and no longer a threat to the community. Karl has never lived a normal life and is uncertain of how to interact with the outside world. He finds it a scary place but go, he must, returning to the small southern town where he was raised. A kindly staff member at the asylum helps him get a job at a lawn-mower repair shop and Karl slowly starts to reintegrate himself into the community. He makes friends with young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a fatherless boy whose mother (Natalie Canerday) is enmeshed with an abusive drunk (Dwight Yoakum), much to the consternation of her gay best friend (John Ritter). Karl comes to live with the Wheatley family and, as he sees the patterns of abuse that dominated his childhood threaten Frank, the film marches inexorably to its tragic conclusion.

Thornton's performance as Childers is a marvel. Actors, when playing 'special people', often go for over the top theatrics (The Rain Man syndrome) to the detriment of their characters and the film. Thornton, on the other hand, finds a quiet dignity in Karl, behind the mannerisms which always compliment, and never engulf the character. He is ably supported by a strong supporting cast. John Ritter does his best work in years, aided by a truly hideous haircut that no self respecting gay man would ever wear in public - I almost didn't recognize him. Young Lucas Black has the natural rhythms of a child, rather than the posing of a child performer and Dwight Yoakum, as the villain of the piece, catches the torment of a man with a need to control who is sliding into an out of control state through alcohol. Only Natalie Canerday fails to impress, coming across as a low rent Bonnie Bedelia impersonator.

Unfortunately, these performance gems are trapped in a rather inexpert film. While the screenplay has a fine, naturalistic sound to it, especially in Karl's lines and interactions with the world, it bounces from cliché situation to cliché situation. There are few surprises and the whole third act of the film becomes an exercise of 'let's get this over with'. The film is majorly undone by Thornton's direction. While he has coaxed fine performances from his actors, his static use of master shots throughout, make the film play like a not very well filmed stage piece. Those times when he does go for a cinematic moment, like shots of Karl on a ruined bridge, he usually comes a cropper on rhythm, timing, or over use of second grade symbolism.

The DVD contains the film in widescreen with a good sound mix. There are some production notes and talent bios but no other appreciable extras.

Truly bad men's haircuts. J.T. Walsh monologues. Chair bound evil father. Gratuitous bad front porch jam session. Out of gas lawn mower. Uplifting children's football game. Heavy laundry bags. Gratuitous obese girl friend. Multiple French fry eatings.

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