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Memphis Flyer The Video Phile

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

*** Sling Blade (1996, directed by Billy Bob Thornton)

There is a redeeming crude honesty to Sling Blade, the somewhat mannered 1996 film that earned a screenwriting Academy Award for star/writer/director, down-home auteur Billy Bob Thornton, whose real name, come to think of it, would have suited the circumstances of this homely but touching little tale – part domestic drama, part sitcom, part horror story – as well as the name actually given the main character. Carl, he is called – as if this were some Dr. Frankenstein flick set in Central Europe instead of in central Arkansas, where this low-budget oddity got put together, both spiritually and actually.

Of course, the presence in the movie of the likes of Robert Duvall, John Ritter, Dwight Yoakum, and J.T. Walsh indicates that there was a certain in-group high seriousness associated with Sling Blade from the very beginning. Clearly, it was destined to be at the very least a cult film; that it got somewhat further in the world’s estimation is an indication of how well it transcends its built-in limitations.

When we first see a young middle-aged Carl, he is presented as a backwoods “retard,” who has just been pronounced cured and is being released from the state hospital, where he landed as a young boy after hacking to death his mother and her lover when he mistook their furtive coupling for something else. We learn all this from Carl himself in a monologue that sounds in part like a Writer’s Workshop dissertation read aloud and serves also to introduce us to Carl’s characteristic tics – a ritualistic “Mmmmm, hmmmm” that allows him to play Greek chorus to himself and the periodic verbal refrain “All right, then.” In between these sounds, he manages to get out a fair share of homespun apercus and some self-conscious-sounding gag lines. (“Are you well now?” asks a character to whom he has confessed the circumstances of his incarceration. “I feel all right. Mmmmm, hmmmm,” he replies.)

 *****

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Loch Ness Monster

Godzilla

Big Foot

Abominable Snowman

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Add to this Carl’s studiedly hunchbacked posture, mechanical loping gait, and prognathously out-thrust jaw, and you have the makings of a caricature – Forrest Gump meets Texas Chain-Saw Massacre.

Except that the people and the situations of Sling Blade, even when most cartoony, resonate with depths beyond the ordinary and the obvious, the same way as do the grotesqueries in the short stories of the late great Flannery O’Connor.

Not to spoil the ending, Carl’s attempts to live among “normal” townsfolk – who, of course, turn out to be even more star-crossed and off-center than he is – end either tragically or with reassuring appropriateness, depending on how you want to look at it. He reconnects to his past, anyhow, in a terse, grimly effective scene, and becomes (pick one) an avenger, a destroyer, or a healer. Want to go for all three? All right, then. – Jackson Baker


* Single Action (1996, directed by Carlos Gallardo)

The 1994 assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio shook Mexico like few political events. It’s an easy comparison to John F. Kennedy’s murder, considering how few Mexicans believe the single-assassin theory, even though the Mexican government wasn’t able to prove much more than that.

In fact, Mexico is a bigger breeding ground for wild political rumor than the United States, given the corruption and secrecy the government has displayed for generations. And there has been no better victim to spark outrageous theories than Colosio. A reformer, he was the people’s candidate. Given Mexico’s internal turbulence, it’s doubtful if Colosio would have ever created a Hispanic Camelot, but, having died before ever having the chance to screw up, his legend has been sealed by his murderer.

Mix innuendo, reality, and a storyline, and create a political movie. Single Action is Mexico’s JFK, although director Carlos Gallardo makes it clear in an introduction that he doesn’t purport to represent reality. “There are many stories about how the assassination took place,” the text reads. “This is one of them.” The most interesting scene in the film, however, occurs before the credits, involving viewer speculation about how many bullets it will take before an obese Mexican guy takes a fatal crash to the floor. The clod was caught in the crossfire between some outlaws – including attractive, gun-toting Mexican women – and agents from the Mexican government, though this isn’t explained until later.

This is a bad film. The movie’s been dubbed instead of subtitled, which makes the actors cartoonish (voice-overs cannot handle cliched dialogue). The story is set in a small, poor town which is ruled by Camaro (Oscar Castaneda), a leader of a Mexican organized crime group. A man named Colonel Manco (Miguel Gurza) watches from a window, waiting for his opportunity to prove that this nefarious Camaro played a key role in the assassination. But he is powerless until director-actor Gallardo appears as the undercover government agent sent to unravel everything.

Even if you ignore the poor editing and awful script, Gallardo ruins the movie by his presence. A baby-faced man of medium build should not be allowed to chomp on a tiny, unlit cigar and spout lines that most directors would reserve for Clint Eastwood.

Maybe this movie went over well in Mexico. It couldn’t have addressed a more relevant topic there. But in America, it’s a terrible translation. – Phil Campbell


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