Karl Childers (by Billy Bob Thornton) is an intellectually disabled man who was institutionalised for over 20 years when, at age 11, he murdered his mother and her lover (with a sling blade) after he interrupted them in an act of intimacy. Karl has recently been released after a positive medical assessment. The professionals have satisfied themselves that he is unlikely to kill again as, when questioned, Karl shrugs and says “there’s no reason to”. Although now in his 30’s, Karl’s social and intellectual development has not progressed far since his hospitalisation. He returns to his hometown and manages to get a job in a mechanic’s workshop, where he meets Frank Wheatley (by Lucas Black). They become friends and Karl is invited to stay at Frank’s house with Frank, his mother Linda (by Natalie Canerday) and her boyfriend Doyle Hargraves (by Dwight Yoakam). Linda sees that Karl is kind and she is accepting of his strangeness, but Doyle is far more boisterous, intolerant and vocal, throwing insults around whenever he feels like it and behaving like a total monster. As Karl’s friendship with Frank develops, he becomes more and more aware and concerned about Doyle’s cruelty towards Frank and his mother, so he decides to pay Doyle a lesson and takes matters into his own hands.
Given his track record, you would be forgiven for expecting every performance of Billy Bob Thornton’s to be exceptional. It is no exaggeration to say that in this role Billy Bob’s performance is thoroughly outstanding and awesome. He is often unrecognisable in the roles he takes on and he is just superb as Karl. His strange mannerisms, his speech and general physiology all come together to present an authentic and heart-jerking Karl. The other performances a great – particularly Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday and Dwight Yoakam, who is just nasty and scary.The story is told at a slow pace, but that is quite appropriate for this drama as it unfolds – and it reflects Karl’s own perception of the world. It is a stunning movie.
In 1997, this performance earned Billy Bob Thornton a nomination for the (Oscar) Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In the same year, the movie won the (Oscar) Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Billy Bob, the production team and the movie itself also won several other awards in this year.
Made 1996. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton