It gives this critic pause when a director writes and stars in their own work. Cinema is a collaborative medium between diverse photographic, musical, and dramatic artists synthesizing their respective talents into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
A temptation factors into the equation for filmmakers to indulge in narcissistic wish fulfillment when they emulate Orson Welles and presume themselves to be better actors and screenwriters than, well, actors and screenwriters.
Keeping all that in mind, how does Billy Bob Thornton fare?
If you don’t know what to watch next, Thornton’s Sling Blade (1996) is available to stream on Hulu. It is an adaptation of George Hickenlooper’s short film, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994), which Thornton also scripted and performed in.
The drama picture snagged Thornton an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Thornton plays Karl Childers, an intellectually disabled Arkansas man who is released from the state mental hospital after killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old with a sling blade.
He lands a job at a repair shop in his rural hometown, where he befriends Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a boy the same age as he was at the time he committed double homicide.
Karl becomes an eyewitness to the abusive relationship between Frank’s mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam).
Thornton’s writing Oscar is well-merited, for his dialogue characterizes the cast who deliver the lines with as much life as it does the setting in which they stage themselves, and his narrative galvanizes the Faulknerian tone behind his Southern Gothic mood.
Thornton’s acting is no less forceful. Karl Childers is an ambitious, uncomplimentary performance, demanding of Thornton not only to change the way he looks and speaks, but also to invest in this unlikely hero a sympathy which conflicts against the violent crime he’s guilty of.
And he directs a powerhouse out of Yoakam as well, though for as loathsome a villain as you are like to see on the screen.
But as intense as these portrayals are, there’s a reason Thornton’s direction wasn’t up for an award. His final cut is a reel of “master shots,” with entire scenes taking place in a single frame so nothing can be edited out.
To direct is human. To edit is divine.
Thornton’s notorious anal-retentiveness cramps the pacing at times, for modern audiences most of all, who are seasoned consumers of media propelled along by myriad cuts.
All in all, Thornton is an exception to the rule of self-obsessed authorship, and Sling Blade is an exceptional movie.