The contemplative haul that Sling Blade is -- it clocks in at more than two hours -- ultimately is a refreshing one because Thornton is an extraordinarily confident filmmaker, as well as a filmmaker who is confident in his writer and actors. The film moseys without being poky and shows a strong, undiluted vision, taking its time to get where it's going but providing many rich, genuine touches along the way. Thornton has probably watched a lot of Clint Eastwood's films, most notably Unforgiven, which Sling Blade resembles in its themes of redemption and reckoning. The two filmmakers share many stylistic traits: deliberate pacing, respect for environment, dark and muted visuals, and sneaky humor.
Thornton is also able to draw rich, varied performances from his cast; especially notable are his own one-of-a-kind portrayal of the cypherish, mythic, almost ghostly Karl, as well as Canerday's simple, hospitable mom and country-music star Yoakam's Doyle, a smoldering, insecure lout of the first order. An uncompromisingly told tale with a minimum of frills (Lanois's score being the most obviously woolly thing about it), Sling Blade is heartfelt without preaching, and it is keenly aware of how human contact can affect us at any moment, sometimes drastically. By the time Thornton has brought Karl and his movie full circle to the asylum again, the idea that Karl's life is one long sacrificial quest for inner peace and emotional justice has been studiously yet artfully made clear. The prologue is no longer a nightmare, and Sling Blade begins to achieve the resonance of a dream -- Karl's dream, in fact.
Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson; directed by Billy Bob Thornton; with Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, and J. T. Walsh.