Sling Blade is a quintessentially indie movie. From the aesthetically different qualities of its design to the motivations of the main protagonist, the film leaves the viewer with a quandary to solve. In Murphy’s introductory chapter, he discusses the facts that Hollywood and indie cinema are inextricably linked. As he notes in the beginning of his introduction, even the film festivals that are meant to foster and promote indie cinema are in place because of Hollywood. “In terms of the symbiotic relationship between independents and the Hollywood industry, it should also not be forgotten that the Sundance Film Festival, the single most powerful independent showcase and an event that has become synonymous with independent film, depends on the financial backing of Robert Redford, a Hollywood star” (Murphy 3). So does Sling Blade’s reliance on its star Billy Bob Thornton make it more Hollywood and less indie? Not according to Murphy, whose thesis is that “the film script is the heart of the creative originality to be found in the independent movie” (Murphy 6). Based on Murphy’s rule set, and more specifically in his reference to Syd Field, does Sling Blade fit the indie bill?
Right from the get go it certainly has all of the trappings of an indie film. The introduction of the main character creates an air of ambiguity as to his motivations and previous actions. In fact the protagonist doesn’t even have a line at first, instead he lingers on screen, seemingly incapable of expressing his thoughts. As the filmmakers have established before the fact that our setting is a mental hospital, it is up to the viewer to understand that the main character himself is somewhat disturbed and fractured psychologically. When Karl (Thornton) finally does speak it is to describe the reason he ended up in the mental hospital in the first place. This, I suppose, fits the bill of a Hollywood film in that it gives the back story of the character to the audience directly from the dialogue. However, even as Karl describes his brutal actions, he still has an indelible impact on the audience as being an endearing character. This is due to a number of things that Thornton as an actor does with the character. He hunches over in his chair, his accent is laid on thick, and he comes off as being a quirky yet good hearted person. This is of course starkly contrasted by the description he gives of how he murdered his mother while she was committing adultery with another man. So while we are given something to work with in terms of a back story, the character himself is still a bit of an enigma.
The second act is much more straight forward, reintroducing Karl to the real world and having him adjust. He befriends a young boy and his mother, who put up with an abusive step father character. Just as Field would have it our conflict is immediately made apparent. What will Karl do to help the boy and his mother? Obviously they will have to clash by the end of the film, but what form will their confrontation take? The difference here is that instead of being so clear cut, again we are presented with a situation that is a powder keg just waiting to explode. Instead of immediately blowing up however, it is allowed to linger as the fuse burns. The second and third act in point of fact are very much character based, with Karl in the foreground and the conflict simmering beneath him. It would seem to me to fit Newman’s idea of an indie piece based on its character-centric driven narrative.
Moving on into the third act we are finally given a conflict resolution when Karl ends the step fathers life rather abruptly. Again the treatment of the killing itself is quite different from your standard Hollywood show down. Instead we are given a fairly calm sequence where Karl asks the step father Doyle how to call the police. uninterested by the whole situation Doyle quips that he’d better call either an ambulance or a hearse if Karl is going to kill him. Then Karl simply rises from his chair and hacks twice with little to no sound and that’s that, conflict resolved. So again it fits in with Fields vision in terms of being toward the end of the third act, however it is much less bombastic then what is expected from something considered to be Hollywood.
So while it does fit with Murphy and Field’s ultimate summation of a three act structure, it goes about it in an incredibly unique way. To Newman I think it would be considered assuredly independent based on its character focus, aesthetic qualities and overall economic costs. However, according to what Murphy and Field agree upon, and that is that the screenplay is the ultimate decider of what is and what isn’t indie; Sling Blade would fit the bill of a three act Hollywood drama.