mattmav45’s review published on Letterboxd:
There are films that can be described as being dependent on a central performance, and then there's Sling Blade.
I'm typically a big picture guy when it comes to reviewing a film. I don't tend to focus on a laundry list of items such as cinematography, acting, directing, etc. Instead, I focus on the way the film made me feel, and the overriding aspect that will resonate with me over time. From time to time I come across a film in which bringing up an acting performance not only crosses my mind, but is essential in any reference to said film. Thankfully, such is very much the case here.
The story follows the character of Karl Childers and his release from a mental hospital for killing his mom and her lover years before. Much of the film centers on Karl's re-emergence in the world and his newly found relationship with a boy and his mom. It is the kind of storyline that in some cases is ripe for manipulative devices and hammy moments, but thankfully the writing and most importantly a stand-out performance ensure that this film is easily able to stray from those pitfalls.
It's time to stop beating around the bush at this point and recognize Billy Bob Thornton for such a great performance. It is not a particularly ease role, but he is able to portray Karl as a real person with real problems. One of the biggest compliments one can give an acting performance is the statement that the character on-screen is able to come to live, and become a real, living thing for a couple of hours. Thankfully for the viewer, such is very much the case here.
I believe mention should also be given to the way in which the character of Kark is written. It is quite apparent that Karl has some kind of mental condition, but the film chooses to not make this his defining trait. Instead, Karl is treated like a real person with real problems. As a result Karl is more relatable to the viewer, and investment is ultimately more rewarding.
Perhaps there is no greater testament to the power of the writing and acting here than the last fifteen minutes. Karl's last talk with Frank, and then ultimately taking the course of action he does would seem to be a somewhat contrived avenue for the film to take. Thankfully, everything is set-up in a manner that the action and repercussions feel downright poetic in nature. It is very much a fitting end to the character of Karl, and fits within the context of the film quite well.
Great writing and great acting combine to result in an unforgettable character.