Sling Blade ★★★½

"They turned me loose from the nervous hospital. Said I was well." ~ Karl

This was the launching point of actor Billy Bob Thornton's career as a writer-director, his first feature film. It won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to a nomination for Best Actor. He plays Karl Childers, a mentally challenged inmate at a state psychiatric hospital, who gets released into the "real" world, perhaps a bit too soon.

As an adolescent, Karl murdered his mother and her lover with a "sling blade" used for weed cutting. As an adult, he has an aptitude for fixing small engines and has learned to read the Bible and a handful of other books, such as "A Christmas Carol." On the surface, Karl is just a very slow, rather kind, uneducated country yokel. But there's also a sense of maturity in his simplicity, and Thornton manages to create an indelible character.

Trouble brews when Karl befriends a young boy named Frank (Lucas Black) and his single mother Linda Wheatley (Natalie Canerday). He comes to live in their garage while working at a local fix-it shop, much to the disdain of the mother's boyfriend, construction worker Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yokum). In fact, Doyle doesn't get along with anybody, least of all Linda's gay boss at the dollar store, Vaughan Cunningham (John Ritter).

The bonding between Frank and Karl is probably the best aspect of this film. It serves as a contrast to Doyle's belligerence and Karl's strained relationship with his own father (Robert Duvall), who has essentially disowned him since the double homicide.

Celebrity cameos range from Jim Jarmusch playing a Frostee Cream Boy to accomplished drummer Mickey Jones as a friend of Doyle, plus such familiar supporting actors as J.T. Walsh, James Hampton, Brent Briscoe and more. It's a film that may make you feel nervous along with the characters, knowing that something very bad could happen at any moment -- an excellent debut behind the camera for Thornton.

Ranked in the Top Ten of my A Little Bit Country list

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