Sling Blade was written, directed, and starred in by Arkansan Billy Bob Thorton. The movie is filmed in Arkansas and takes place in a small town there. Karl, a mentally handicapped man, has just been let out of a mental institution after killing his mother and her lover (a cruel man that had tortured Karl) when he was 12. He is given a job fixing lawnmowers and is allowed to stay in the shop. Karl is simpleminded, but his docile nature and slow speech seem to put people at ease. He quickly befriends a young boy and his mother, as well as the mother’s gay best friend. The boy’s father is gone, but in his place the mother has a mean, drunken, backwards hick of a boyfriend named Roy. Roy serves as a reminder of everything wrong with small towns and the south, the things we’d rather not have. He is racist, sexist, homophobic, ignorant, and is buddies with the local cops so he can drive around drunk.
Karl is not a violent person despite his past. When asked by an interviewer about the killing he says he “reckons” he didn’t have a reason to kill anyone else. Karl doesn’t react to most of the insults slung at him by Roy. What truly bothers him is the way Roy treats others. Karl is reminded of his own father that didn’t want anything to do with him, that locked him out in a shed instead of letting him in the house. The parallels between Karl’s problems growing up and his new friend Frank’s are clear. While Karl may not recognize these similarities on a conscious level, he is naturally drawn to the boy.
As the situation with Roy worsens, Karl interacts more and more with Frank, his mother, and their gay friend Vaughn. As a character, Vaughn adds another comparison for Karl. He is also an outcast, someone who doesn’t fit into the normal social standards of a small rural town. He is desperate to protect Frank and Linda, and is glad to have Karl around. Curiously, despite being similarly exiled in their society, Vaughn doesn’t really understand Karl at first. He thinks Karl is always deep in thought, and seems to have a romanticized version of the simple minded. Ironically Karl, while not really homophobic, had the immorality of homosexuality drilled in with his mother’s bible lessons. The would be no more than a humorous quirk (Karl feels no malice, and doesn’t understand the societal implications) if it weren’t for the end of the movie.
Karl decides, in order to protect Frank, he must kill Roy, who has started drinking more and more, and threatening Linda and Frank. Karl tells Frank he loves him, and gives him his only worldly possessions, a stack of books his mother gave him. Karl then asks Vaughn to watch out for Linda and Frank. He tells him: “I don’t reckon you have to go with women to be a good daddy to a boy. You been real square-dealin’ with me. The Bible says two men ought not lay together. But I don’t reckon the Good Lord would send anybody like you to Hades. That Frank, he lives inside of his own heart. That’s an awful big place to live in. you take good care of that boy.” Normally I wouldn’t just include a long quote like this, but it seems to me this is the most important thing said in the whole movie. Karl understands something about the world no one else seems to. He recognizes that killing is wrong, but makes the decision to help Frank, knowing he would just be sent back to the mental hospital. He accepts Vaughn because he is a good person, protects Frank because he can’t protect himself. Karl is no longer a victim, but a guardian angel.