In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
It’s funny how unreliable memory can be when it comes to movies—even those seen repeatedly. You sometimes remember whatever made the most vivid impression, even to the exclusion of other important details. In one notable instance, I actually invented my own ending to an obscure little ’90s indie called Delusion, and was so taken aback when I finally saw the film again years later that I looked up old reviews to make sure that it hadn’t been changed. (It hadn’t.) Before revisiting Sling Blade not long ago, I would have sworn up and down that the movie opens with its protagonist, Karl, delivering a lengthy monologue about the long-ago crime that landed him in the “nervous hospital.” As performed by writer-director Billy Bob Thornton—who renders himself almost unrecognizable merely by jutting his jaw forward and speaking in a sing-song rasp—Karl is an unforgettable creation, and that monologue predates the film, having previously anchored the 1994 short “Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade.” (Thornton re-creates the entire short almost note for note in the feature.) It’s Karl’s unusual manner of speech that primarily distinguishes him, after all. Surely Sling Blade must begin by introducing us to him via his own striking syntax?
Nope. As soon as the movie began, it came back to me: Karl doesn’t say a word for the first several minutes. Sling Blade does begin with a monologue, but it’s delivered by one of Karl’s fellow patients, played by the late, great J.T Walsh (who played the same role in the short film). This bait-and-switch opening is a good example of Thornton’s savvy abilities as a dramatist. After Sling Blade catapulted him into stardom, Thornton became so well known as an actor—in movies like A Simple Plan, Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Bad Santa—that many people forgot, if they ever knew it, that he’d been a successful screenwriter before directing his own first movie, having penned the classic One False Move with his partner, Tom Epperson. (It didn’t help that his second feature, All The Pretty Horses, got scissor-handed by Harvey Weinstein and wound up being released in a nearly unwatchable form. And now the Weinstein Company seems to be sitting on Thornton’s latest film as a director, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which is better than its reputation suggests.) Sling Blade may be primarily a vehicle for its creator, but he’s smart enough to know when to hand over the spotlight. Here’s a look at J.T. Walsh winging it home:
Thornton’s instincts as a filmmaker are evident from the very first shot. Karl is in the room, but he’s not yet in the frame; Thornton instead points the camera at a table of fellow patients/inmates, none of whom has any function in the scene except as window dressing. Walsh is visible, but just barely: He’s at extreme frame left when the scene fades in, standing as far from the camera as he can possibly get without leaving the room. This tendency to visually de-emphasize whatever’s most important continues throughout the movie, much of which plays out in extended long shots that were unusual then and would seem radical today, at least in the hands of an American director. (For one thing, many of the lower-end video cameras that are now used to shoot no-budget indies simply can’t handle shots like that. You have to get in closer or the image turns to digital mush.) Initially, our focal point seems to be the tall black dude who’s walking around the table; only after a full 30 seconds have passed—a small eternity in screen time—does Walsh finally rouse himself and walk across the room, grabbing a chair en route and dragging it slooooowly behind him, its legs scraping the floor in a way that’s not quite nails on a chalkboard, but pretty darn close.
Now the camera follows Walsh and swings around to create a new setup (without a cut), with Walsh facing the lens and Karl seen in profile at frame right. At this point, we have no idea who Karl is—he’s just some guy sitting there listening to Walsh prattle on about his encounter with a transsexual hooker. And here I must pause for a moment to talk about how dearly I miss J.T. Walsh, who died in 1998 at the age of 54. He was already 40 when he first started appearing in movies, so audiences didn’t get much time with him, but he still belongs near the top of any list of the great character actors of the ’80s and ’90s; while by no means a chameleon, he had the rare ability to step into virtually any role and make it vivid and arresting, just by virtue of his own slightly shady regular-guy charisma. Here, he absolutely nails this garrulous lunatic, who at first comes across merely like the sort of guy you hope won’t sit next to you on a Greyhound but is gradually revealed as a full-blown smiling psychotic. (I had to end the scene here, because the film cuts for a few minutes to the high-school reporter who’s going to interview Karl, but we hear more from the guy, including one quick, chilling shot in which he simply says, with zero context to which we’re privy, “No, shovel just makes too goddamn much racket.”)
Not that Walsh had to exert himself too much, because the monologue itself is beautifully written. (The version in the short film is almost word-for-word identical.) Like so many conversations with crazy people, it begins in medias res, with Walsh announcing, “Mercury is a real good car. That was the car I was driving that day,” as if he and Karl had been discussing automotive preferences for some time already. It’s rife with irrelevant details, like the clarification that the chicken stand, which isn’t remotely important to the story in the first place, was not a KFC. It’s recognizably the rant of a nut job, but at the same time it genuinely does build, hold your attention, and end with something of a punchline. (Though, again, he continues after the camera cuts elsewhere, and is still going strong when it returns, more than once.) Most important of all, it defines Karl by implicit comparison. For Karl, while a decidedly unusual individual, will turn out not to be insane at all, despite the sordid story of his own that he’s about to relate. Even the fact that Walsh more or less inflicts his violent history on an impassive listener (though Karl grunts his disapproval now and then), whereas Karl is telling his tale at the request of a journalist, is significant.
The real masterstroke here, though, is simply having Karl sit in silence for his first several minutes of screen time. As I say, despite having seen Sling Blade twice in its theatrical run, I’d forgotten that this scene even existed, so strong was my memory of Karl’s much more theatrical monologue (which even takes place in a darkened room lit only by a desk lamp near his face—a bit of poetic license to which I can’t really object, hokey as it is). But opening with Karl’s speech, as I’d misremembered, would clearly have been a mistake. That proper introduction to the character is far more effective coming after this long, seemingly pointless interlude in which he just sits there, staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to Walsh’s crass and eventually homicidal anecdotes. With his jaw stuck out like that in sharp profile, Thornton looks he could be on Mount Rushmore, or the face side of a coin. There’s nothing like complete stillness to pique our curiosity about someone (though if you look closely at Karl’s shirt, you can see from the way it slightly moves that he’s constantly rubbing his hands together below the frame, as he will throughout the movie), and despite Walsh’s masterful performance, it’s Karl we’re wondering about by the time the scene is over. That’s first-rate stage setting, whether people remember it or not.