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Filmmaker fills simple story with complex folks

Billy Bob Thornton.

I'm guessing this would be the name of a guy who might be born in Arkansas. Maybe a baseball player, a little semi-pro ball. Then drifting into country music, maybe singing some rhythm and blues, maybe heading over to Texas to be a drummer in a rock 'n' roll band. And then eventually becoming one of the most interesting writers, directors and actors in American movies.

Actually, I'm not guessing. Billy Bob Thornton is all that and more. He's the kind of guy that a guy like him would write movies about. He did play baseball, he was a musician, and then he drifted into movie acting, mostly playing the kinds of characters who might be called "Billy Bob." Now he is the writer, director and star of a remarkable movie named "Sling Blade," which he occupies with one of the most unusual performances I've ever seen. (The film, which won a special jury prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, opens Wednesday at Pipers Alley.)

Thornton plays a middle-aged man named Karl Childers, who has spent most of his time in a state mental home after killing his mother and her lover while he was still a kid. Now he has been pronounced fit to return to society, where he gets a job as a mechanic and is befriended by a mother and her young son. There are two men in the woman's life: her abusive, drunken boyfriend (played with cruel languor by country singer Dwight Yoakam) and her boss and best friend, a gay man played by John Ritter.

This character of Karl Childers is one you will not soon forget. He has a jutting jaw and a kind of a squint, and he ends a lot of sentences with "uh, huh." He seems retarded but he is also very intense, complex and fiercely determined to figure things out so he won't make another big mistake. He starts out seeming kind of fearsome in a riveting opening monologue where he tells a reporter his life story, but eventually we get to know and like him.

This character is so original, you wonder how Billy Bob came up with him.

"I was making faces in the mirror one morning," Thornton told me. "This was in Texas, in 1984 or 1985. I was acting in a made-for-cable movie, where I had a total of four lines. I was real mad at myself. I hated the movie, I hated the role, and the people who were making it were real - - - - - - I was angry at myself for groveling to get such a useless part."

He was explaining this last September at the Telluride Film Festival, up in the mountains of Colorado, where "Sling Blade" had just premiered to great enthusiasm.

"I had the same haircut that Karl has in the movie. I was looking in the mirror, and I kind of dropped my jaw, and said, `Why are you here?' And it came out in Karl's voice. And then I just kept on talking, and that entire opening monologue in the movie - Karl's whole life story - just came out of myself. Where it came from, I don't know."

But Thornton is a writer and knew he had found a character. He remembered the monologue, developed it and eventually used it in a one-man show that he performed five or six times. Out of that came the story for "Sling Blade."

It is the third movie Thornton has written, and the first he has directed. His first produced screenplay was for Carl Franklin's "One False Move" (1992), which I thought was the second-best film of that year. It told the story of desperate killers on the run, and then it gradually revealed secrets in the past that affected all of their lives.

"I like simple stories and complex characters," Thornton said. That was also true of his second produced screenplay, Richard Pearce's "A Family Thing" (1996), which starred Robert Duvall as a Southerner who had always thought of himself as white, until he discovers after his mother's death that he has a black half-brother (James Earl Jones) who is a Chicago cop.

Thornton's original screenplay for "A Family Thing" had a few more complexities than the final film allowed for; some edges got smoothed down. But all the edges are there in "Sling Blade."

Thornton was born in Hot Springs, Ark., into a family of writers and musicians who lived in an area "mostly inhabited by hillbillies." He absorbed his milieu and has used it ever since, he said. "I'm not influenced by movies so much as by writers like Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O'Connor. . . . Our family has a history of storytellers, and I've always been a natural observer."

He also grew up with a lot of AfricanAmericans, he said, which may explain why "One False Move" and "A Family Thing" both deal with unsuspected blood connections between blacks and whites. "I sang for a while in a black rhythm and blues band, and then I was the drummer in a white Texas rock band. . . . I understand both kinds of music."

(What he doesn't much understand, however, is the way some movies get twisted out of shape to make room for hit songs on their soundtracks. "Some of the new directors today seem to come directly from the movies out of MTV videos for Aerosmith. Everybody's always trying to get the Stone Temple Pilots and Nine Inch Nails onto every soundtrack. You should never try to impose a soundtrack on a story. Let the story find its own soundtrack.")

In "Sling Blade," he said, the result is his own movie, for better or worse: "Martin Scorsese, who I admire so much, told me to stick to my guns: `If you're ever going to do it, do it now. It's your first movie. Nobody knows what to expect. Show them how good you are.' So at least, succeed or fail, it's on my own terms."

One of the key performances in the movie is by Dwight Yoakam, as the no-good, freeloading boyfriend who lounges around the house spreading venom. One of the interesting things about the character is that it's not played too broadly: He's mean, but not a caricature.

"Dwight has had a couple of small roles in other pictures," Thornton said, "including `Red Rock West.' I really like the tone he brings to a role. I thought, he's the villain, but to make him any more mean wouldn't have been right. He's an alcoholic, which means he's great at apologizing, and maybe even means it."

And so, at the end of "Sling Blade," when all of the carefully prepared story elements come together, we don't just cheer for good and recoil at evil. We think. The movie brings up some very complicated issues. A simple story, with complex characters.

Sort of like the life story of Billy Bob Thornton.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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