Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade

"Some folks call it a sling blade. I call it a Kaiser blade."

Sling Blade (1996)

There's a very understated — but, at the same time, very telling — moment during the 1996 movie "Sling Blade."

Well, actually, there are several such moments in that movie, which premiered 15 years ago today. But, first, let's briefly recap the plot.

When the story begins, Karl, a mildly retarded man played by Billy Bob Thornton (who also wrote the story), has been released from the mental hospital where he has been held since he killed his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old. The powers that be have determined that he is no longer a threat to himself or anyone else.

He returns to his childhood home, where he gets a job fixing small machinery, and he befriends a boy and his widowed mother.

The boy's mother has a boyfriend who generally abuses everyone but seems to have particular malevolence in store for those closest to him. One gets the impression that he has — shall we say? — intimacy issues. This leads to some ugly — and revealing — moments for all concerned.

Anyway ...

Following one especially brutal interlude, Karl, in his simple, almost Forrest Gump–like way, tried to ease the tension by telling her a joke he heard from the guys at the fix–it shop.

It was a simple joke, really, a joke that I laughed at in grade school, which meant it was just about on Karl's mental level, but he still didn't get it right when he tried to tell it.

Here's the way Karl heard it the first time, when his employer told it:
"There were these two ol' boys, and they hung their peckers off a bridge to piss. One ol' boy from California, the other from Arkansas. The ol' boy from California says, 'Boy, this water's cold,' and the ol' boy from Arkansas says, 'Yeah, and it's deep, too.' Get it? "

But Karl told it this way:
"There were these two fellers standin' on a bridge, a–goin' to the bathroom. One feller said, 'The water's cold,' and the other feller said, 'The water's deep.' I believe one feller come from Arkansas. Get it?"

Karl had a very endearing way of rationalizing things so they made sense to him. In that regard, he kind of reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies. In the context of their experiences, anything that seemed foreign eventually made sense. (That's how a swimming pool became a "cement pond" and a billiard room became a "fancy eatin' room.")

If Karl's internal compass wasn't always in sync with others', there was no problem with his sense of right and wrong. He might not be able to verbalize it too well, but it's kind of like the famous judicial ruling regarding pornography.

He knew right (and wrong) when he saw it. And he acted accordingly. (Not always legally. But accordingly.)

In the film's closing minutes, Karl had conversations with the boy's mother, the boy and the mother's gay friend (played by John Ritter), then had a climactic conversation with the mother's abusive boyfriend.

Even in his limited mental capacity, only Karl knew the significance of the conversations — although all the people with whom he spoke seemed to get an inkling, at least, at the very last minute, of what might be about to happen.

And that made "Sling Blade" the only film I can recall in which the last word said by all the main characters (except Thornton's) was the same: "Karl?" It wasn't spoken in unison but in four separate scenes and in four separate contexts.

In hindsight, all four had relevance to each other although Karl may have been the only one to perceive that — perhaps because Karl was the only one who could really bring peace to that troubled house.

So he did — the only way he knew how.