SHORT: SOME FOLKS CALL IT A SLING BLADE (1994)

DIRECTED BY:  George Hickenlooper

FEATURING Billy Bob Thornton, J.T. Walsh, Molly Ringwald, Jefferson Mays, Suzanne Cryer

PLOT: A peek inside an asylum for the criminally insane as a mentally retarded double

murderer chats with a diabolical fellow inmate before being interviewed by a newspaper reporter on the day of his release.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is a short film with unusual subject matter.  The viewer is treated to a vignette portrait of a murderer in an insane asylum.  There is a glimpse of his twisted companion, and a look at the sorts of confused, eccentric bureaucrats who run the place.  All of this is presented against the backdrop of the controversy of social attitudes about the patients.  The piece is strangely cemented together with the premise of a newspaper reporter trying to get an interview with the murderer on the day his sentence expires.  Odd as the setting and premise are, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade is really just a demo-clip.  The idea was to get the concept of Billy Bob Thornton’s ability to portray Karl Childers out into the greater film community in order to locate backers and pitch a full-length movie.  It worked, and the mainstream picture Sling Blade was the result.  Most of  Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade is filler, the premise with the reporter being used to make the film longer than a screen test.  As such, the film lacks the substance and quality to be a truly weird movie.

COMMENTS:  In this short film predecessor to Sling Blade we observe a day in the life of a criminal mental patient who is on the verge of social repatriation.  Karl Childers (Thornton) chats with a fellow inmate in an institutional day-room.  Meanwhile, reporter Teresa Tatum (Ringwold) is waiting to interview Childers.

Tatum, who is working on a feature exploring the controversies of releasing criminal patients back into society, pontificates frivolously at long length with a companion (Cryer), then spars with a hesitant and quirky chief hospital administrator (Mays).  Eventually, we are allowed to see Thornton’s skillful performance as Childers when he explains to the reporter the circumstances of his crime.  The interim would be dreadfully uninteresting time filler were it not interspersed with several astounding segments in which J.T. Walsh plays the part of a funny, congenial, but very scary psychotic killer.

The annoying Molly Ringwold, an actress of very modest proportions, puts us to sleep with a vapid reprisal of her even more annoying Claire Standish character from the sophomoric teen angst hit The Breakfast Club.  Dressed in period clothing, she embarrasses herself and the viewer who is expected to believe that he is watching a real newspaper journalist rather than Molly Ringwold playing Claire Standish while dressed in period clothing.

The show stopper, however. is J.T. Walsh.  Walsh, an underrated and highly skilled character actor, commandeers the entire production with his disturbing portrayal of psychotic murderer Charles Bushman. In between sequences in which we must endure an onslaught of Ringwold’s vapid lines, Walsh delivers a peerless performance.

As Childers waits to be interviewed by Tatum, Bushman approaches him, sits down to relax, and casually commences an appalling autobiographical monologue of personal anecdotes.  Playing Bushman with subtle but masterful voice control and facial expressions, Walsh describes a couple of sexual encounters and an abduction as casually as if he were talking about cars (which he also talks about—I’ll never look at a Mercury the same way again.)

Harrowing and repellent, Bushman’s stories and persona are diabolically funny and perversely charming right up to the devastating point at which he viscerally describes just how much he enjoys ripping out a woman’s uterus and devouring her wet, glistening cervix.  Walsh’s characterization is so sublime and convincing that it must surely set some new dramatic standard.

This unusual speech, with its gruesome climax, is sobering and sickening.  It thrusts home the idea that the criminally insane may not really be very interesting or colorful past the initial impression—unlike in the movies.  They are sick, shabby people who can quickly reveal just how perverted they are inside.  More importantly, the crux of the Bushman segments reflects on Tatum’s hypothesis that the criminally insane might not be suitable candidates for release back into society.  To wit, Bushman represents the sort of influences to whom Childers has been subject while locked up.

Walsh’s gem of a performance is one of the most striking and memorable bits of character acting that the average movie viewer is likely to see.  It is creepy and powerful and completely disarming, because it is simultaneously casual and matter of fact.  Audiences have been shortchanged to have not been treated to a broader range of this talented thespian’s work prior to his death.  His role in Some Call It A Sling Blade, along with Billy Bob Thornton’s, make this independent project a good film pick for anyone who can stomach the subject matter.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a crisp, dark, stylized short about mental illness… Shot in black and white, its frequent slow tracking shots and claustrophobic framing create a mood of antiseptic menace…”–TV Guide (DVD)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.