Thursday, September 22, 2011

Southern Gothic: Sling Blade (1996)

I watched a series of films associated with the Southern Gothic family; I'll be writing pieces on a few of them over the next week or so.  Here's the first one.

It's a strange, lucid, uncomfortable movie, mythic in its banality.  Seeing the incredible central performance, by the director no less, and knowing that it flowered out of a short film he worked on, it's easy to see this as a film born entirely of inspiration, the inscription of a restless muse's voice directly to the celluloid.  There's something elemental and absolute about each of the main characters, and yet, their world feels unvarnished and authentic.  This is Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade.

Unlike some other films in its family group, Sling Blade was not the result of a lark by the filmmakers.  Both Thornton himself, and George Hickenlooper, the director of the original short, were raised in the Bible Belt -- according to good ol' Wikipedia, Thornton grew up in a shack without running water or electricity.  This deep-South lineage shows in the film as a stark but sympathetic realism, an obvious love for deep Southerners and their landscape, in all its virtues and eccentricities.

This landscape is soft and pleasantly inert, like Karl seems to be; if it wasn't for Doyle, this film would be as calming and pastoral as a pasture in late Spring. The architecture seems porous and sunlit, crafted by randomness to let the breeze pass through easily.  People come and go at all times, stopping by the mechanic's place, walking over to the dollar store, and yelling at the band from the next yard over.  The community is so close-knit, there almost no such thing as an unexpected visitor -- anyone can decide to appear pretty much anywhere, at any time.  The only exception, of course, is Karl's unnamed father, who occupies Millsburg's only impregnable fortress, packed with refuse, apparently forbidden, weeds grown high... for this fallen patriarch, every guest is unexpected... especially his estranged son, whose very existence he adamantly denies.

Having been thus disowned and exiled, Karl takes on a number of archetypal roles, without ever fully fitting into any of them. Like the Trickster, he comes from outside the community, and he seems to infect and undermine it; it is his status as an outsider that allows him to take on his most important narrative function. However, if he's a trickster, he's the least clever of all his ilk, leaning on pure honesty and lack of pretense, rather than upon strategic subversion of the status quo.  In the same vein, he's a father-figure in certain respects, offering a model of morality and kindness and open-mindedness to Frank; yet, he cedes this task to Vaughan at the crucial moment, refusing to become permanently enshrined within the family as a protector and provider.  In a certain way, he also fits the messiah/hero archetype, entering the world from a humble beginning, discovering a destructive unbalancing force, and then symbolically sacrificing himself to vanquish it. But as a character, he's too conflicted to be a pure force of justice and/or redemption -- he's dealing with his own demons, vanquishing his own father from his life, and coming to grips with his own history, so much so that his act of salvation seems like a bit of an after-thought.

Karl's status as an outsider is one of the thematic kernels of Sling Blade. At the beginning of the film, just after he leaves the penitentiary, his attempts to assimilate are the main dramatic drive.  The tension of the locals suggests that assimilation will be the major point of conflict for Karl's story; we end up watching for hostility between Karl and each person he encounters, including his bosses, Frank's mother, Vaughan, and Doyle.  Surely somebody is going to stigmatize him, misunderstand him, provoke him at the wrong moment, and he's going to become a pariah... it's the Elephant Man formula, par for the indie film course. And slowly, wickedly, the film overturns this expectation, revealing that the community is actually made up of compassionate, sympathetic people, and Karl doesn't just have vain hopes -- he has an opportunity for a semi-normal life.

What Karl proves in this red herring of a dramatic arc is that he can comply with the social norms at work around him. He's gone from outsider to insider... though he's not in charge of a household, he's self-sufficient and respectful. The community clearly values his gentleness, his honesty, and his work ethic. Still, he walks on the edge of this community, cut off as he is by his awkwardness and his spotty history. This theme -- the theme of marginal membership, of outsider/insider duality -- will come up in a lot of the Southern Gothic films. At first, Karl's perpetual outsider stigma seems to be a pure detriment, preventing him from fully assimilating -- but eventually, it becomes his greatest weapon, an ability to follow his intuition and act out instincts that the community has had to suppress to maintain order. It seems like Karl's role in the community is to perform its collective anger in the form of violence, and his passivity and introversion is the film's great, heroic irony.

Another of Karl's contradictions: in performing this violence, he takes on an unmistakable Christ-like role. He is the Prince of Peace with a lawnmower blade of justice.

It's easy to correlate Sling Blade with Christian mythology and find a convincing parallel. The asylum is heaven, our home before we're born and after we die, complete with a wise God (Dr. Jerry Woolridge) and a Satanic figure (Charles Bushman).  Jerry is the true source of Karl's moral framework, having taught him that murder is wrong, that children should be shielded from the evils of the world, that he can forgive himself for his sins if he takes the time to admit them, and that life is hard but worth living. This moral sensibility is a kind of biblical common sense, learned in the asylum and applied to the outside world, and it seems to come accompanied by a hypersensitivity to good and bad intentions in others.

Interestingly, Karl lives a whole symbolic life during his short time outside the hospital -- he has a shy childhood where he discovers junk food and friendship, and then a productive youth where he lives and works at a mechanic's shop. Like any normalized American male, he goes from independent professional at the shop to stable family man at Linda's; eventually he finds love in Melinda and religion through baptism.  It's not exactly in order, but he hits all the marks.

Having lived a whole life in Millsburg, Karl finally sacrifices himself for Linda and Frank, defying Doyle's presumed authority, and giving up all he worked for in the community. At that point, he returns to the afterlife, where he's shown to have chosen inner peace over the devil's insipid words. What a (hero's) journey!

Somehow, despite Sling Blade's insular Southern town colloquialism, these themes take on an epic, sprawling dimension -- perhaps because they echo throughout multiple microcosmic stories. These motifs -- fatherhood and belonging and redemption through sacrifice -- become universal in their repetition within the film, and Sling Blade reminds us (in a very Gothic/Romantic kind of way) that the same perennial human drama plays out in the struggles of each humble human life.

Next, a different Southern Gothic tale, whose dramas are much more contained, more dangerous and particular -- and how its refusal to offer transcendence or redemption, its earthbound fallenness, makes it a uniquely Noirish entry into the Southern Gothic genre.