The local paper has a feature called "Today In History" or something like that, which notes significant events that have occurred on this date. August 4, for instance, was the date of: the murder of Lizzie Borden's parents in 1892, the declaration of war by Britain in 1914, and the arrest of Anne Frank and her family in 1944. It also happens to be the birthday of Billy Bob Thornton, and so a good day to recommend this movie, in which he gives a really remarkable performance.
I had heard that Sling Blade was a good movie, but had the mistaken idea that it was some sort of semi-horror thing, and very violent. Rob G corrected that misunderstanding in a comment here a couple of months (?) or so ago, and since his recommendations are usually good I decided to take this one. The movie begins with an account of a murder committed with the implement named in the title--a sort of scythe, and not the same thing I knew as a "sling" or "swing" blade when I was growing up. But there is no explicit violence.
The story concerns Karl Childers, whom we meet as a patient in a mental hospital. He is clearly not right in the head. He's frequently described by others as "retarded," but his problem strikes me as something closer to a form of autism. At any rate, he has been committed to the insitution because he committed two murders, and presumably found not guilty by reason of insanity. I'm not giving away too much with that, because we learn it in the first ten minutes or so of the film. Karl has been declared to be cured, and is released. He returns to the small town of his childhood, and soon makes friends with a boy and his single mother.
And that's enough synopsis. We are deep in southern gothic territory here, which of course overlaps with Flannery O'Connor territory, and while this is not quite an O'Connor-class story it's good enough to be worth watching more than once. It's not easy to watch; it's full of painful and then menacing situations. But it's difficult to stop watching, too; the story takes hold of you. I was not altogether happy with the ending when I saw it, but after living with it for a few days I changed my mind.
Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Karl is remarkable, to say the least, and probably the most immediately striking thing about the movie. I was surprised and very impressed when the credits rolled at the end, informing me that Thornton also wrote and directed it. I had been familiar with his name as an interesting actor whom I'd seen in only a few roles, mostly small, and as part of a celebrity couple of which the other half was Angelina Jolie. But forget all that publicity and gossip: the man is an artist.
Here's a clip which will give you an idea of the character of Karl. He has just returned to his home town.
The scene at the laundromat which closes this clip is where he meets the boy, Frank Wheatley. (Frank is played by the young Lucas Black, now an adult actor who played the younger funeral parlor employee, Buddy Robinson, in Get Low.)
The version I saw--the one Netflix sent me--is two and a half hours long. I gather from the commentary on the DVD, of which I only heard a few minutes, that it includes some scenes that were cut from the original release. Not having seen the other, I can't compare them, but although it's pretty slow-moving in the longer version I don't think much was wasted, and you might be missing some good stuff if you see the shorter one.
Oh, and by the way: the soundtrack is by Daniel Lanois and consists mostly of his beautiful atmospheric guitar work. It's probably worth buying.