Films

The garden of evil

In two movies, hell is a place called Arkansas

Brian D. Johnson March 3 1997
Films

The garden of evil

In two movies, hell is a place called Arkansas

Brian D. Johnson March 3 1997

The garden of evil

Films

In two movies, hell is a place called Arkansas

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

On its licence plates, Arkansas advertises itself as “Land of opportunity.” Judging from two new movies filmed in the state that U.S. President Bill Clinton calls home, it is a land that affords an excellent opportunity for evil in particular. Sling Blade is a haunting drama about a released mental patient who comes home to the Bible Belt town where he committed a gruesome crime as a 12-year-old. Paradise Lost:

The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a harrowing documentary about the trial of three teenagers suspected of Satanism and convicted in the savage murder of three eight-year-old boys. The films are utterly different. But both present Southern gothic portraits of a society steeped in hatred and intolerance, a place where violence can come out of nowhere, like a scourge of biblical dimensions.

Sling Blade itself seemed to come out of nowhere. It is the movie that has everyone asking “Who is Billy Bob Thornton?” As the writer, director and star of Sling Blade, Thornton has received Academy Award nominations for best actor and best adapted screenplay. And in a year when the list of Oscar nominees is crowded with names of unknown actors from Australia and Britain,

tector is a gay hardware salesman (John Ritter) . Doyle, in short, is a bomb waiting to go off. But on a more mysterious level, so is Karl. Both are victims of abusive fathers and torn by forces beyond their control.

As a kind of idiot savant, Karl belongs to a line of sentimental heroes in movies ranging from Rain Man to Forrest Gump. But Sling Blade has none of the contrivance or gimmickry of those films. Stretched over 141 minutes, and threaded with humor, it is remarkably spare and simple, a slow movie about a slow man—Forrest Gump Unplugged. From the opening scene, in which a sex offender at the mental hospital (J.T. Walsh) laboriously scrapes his chair across the floor to sit with Karl, the film builds tension out of patience. And Karl is supremely patient, an outcast who silently endures insults and injury—up to a point.

Karl speaks in a slow, gravelly voice, punctuating each complete thought with a grunted “Uh hmmmmm.” Thornton says the character, and the voice, came to him in a flash one day years ago while he was sitting in front of a makeup mirror. ‘The whole story just poured right out of me,” he recalls, “the whole opening monologue.” That monologue, in which Karl recounts his crime to a young female reporter, became the basis for a one-man stage show in 1985, and later a short film.

Thornton lived with the character for years before finally making Sling Blade. And on-screen, he undergoes an uncanny transformation, with stooped posture and a set jaw. “The physicality of the character,” he says, “comes from all the old men I grew up with.” Growing up dirt-poor in the backwoods of Arkansas, he was surrounded by squalor. He remembers “a guy who was raised in a shed and fed like a dog, kind of deformed-looking in a way. People said it was because his mother had been scared by a snake when she was pregnant. But it turned out he’d had polio.”

Thornton acknowledges some Thornton (left), Black: it has everyone asking ‘Who is Billy Bob?’ similarities to Rain Man and Forrest Gump. “But Karl is a lot closer to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Frankenstein,” he says, pointing out that Robert Duvall (who turns up in a startling cameo as Karl’s derelict father) made his film debut as Radley, the mentally challenged bogeyman in Mockingbird (1962). While Sling Blades slender narrative errs on the side of the obvious, the characters are complex, and shaded with innuendo. “I was so influenced by my surroundings,” says Thornton, “and by the Southern authors— misery and humor all tangled up in one ball—it’s just the way I’ve always seen the

Thornton—a 40-year-old native of Arkansas—is the American unknown. As an actor, he has quietly plied his craft in Hollywood since the early 1980s, appearing in such films as One False Move (which he co-wrote), Tombstone, Indecent Proposal and Dead Man. Thornton also co-starred with John Ritter on the CBS series Hearts Afire. But with Sling Blade, he makes his feature directing debut—and creates one of the most memorable characters to grace the American screen in years.

Made for just $1.3 million, it is a deceptively modest film that thrives on the gentle charm of a slow-witted naïf named Karl (Thornton), a mental patient who is set free, against his will, 25 years after slaughtering

his mother and her lover with a scythe-like tool called a sling blade. Karl has spent most of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane. He has read the Bible, and learned a thing or two about right and wrong. By now, he reckons, he must be cured. But even if he is, the world that he is about to re-enter is not.

Karl, who has a talent for fixing small motors, finds work as a repairman in his home town. He befriends a fatherless young boy named Frank (Lucas Black), who brings him home like a stray dog and persuades his mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), to let him move in. But Linda’s boyfriend, an abusive redneck named Doyle (singer Dwight Yoakam), is grossly intolerant of Linda’s household. “I don’t like wimpy-assed kids or mental retards, and she’s got one of each living with her,” he says. “And I don’t like homosexuals”—Linda’s best friend and pro-

FILMS

world. I actually happen to love the South. It’s a magical place. But every time you have a magical place,” he laughs, “there’s more than one kind of magic.”

Paradise Lost is a true story of crime and superstition in the Bible Belt. In 1993, the mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys were pulled from a shallow creek in West Memphis, Ark. On the night they had gone missing, the manager of a restaurant near the crime scene reported seeing a black man covered in mud and blood on the premises. But the man was never found, and police lost blood samples from the restaurant. A month later they accused three local teenagers—Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols— of brutally murdering the boys as part of a satanic sacrifice. By the time the teens were tried, the local media had whipped the community into witchhunt hysteria with unsubstantiated tales of blooddrinking and homosexual orgies.

Damien is the most vilified of the defendants— suspicious because of his name (which he shares with the demon in the movie The Omen), and because he dresses all in black, listens to heavy metal and cultivates an interest in the “white magic” of the Wicca religion. Jason, meanwhile, is stigmatized by his friendship with Damien.

And Jessie, who has an IQ of just 72, claims he was coerced into confessing during a marathon police interrogation. Although the trial produced no hard evidence against the defendants, all three were convicted of murder. Damien is currently on death row, and the other two are in jail for life.

Tracking the case from the very beginning, New York City film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky obtained astonishing access. They got their cameras into the courtroom, the jail cells and the judge’s chambers. They interviewed parents of the victims and the accused, with both sides oozing venom. They shot lawyers’ strategy sessions, and even eavesdropped on an intimate phone chat between the jailed Jessie and his girlfriend.

The voyeurism of it all is distasteful at first. But the film is also a study of voyeurism, showing how the media fuel a spirit of blind vengeance. Paradise Lost becomes a descent into white-trash hell, a community that

is as scary as the crimes themselves. John Mark Byers, a gun-loving Baptist zealot in snakeskin boots, is the stepfather of one of the victims. One moment he is volunteering a hymn from the pulpit, the next he is blasting bullets into a pumpkin that he has set up to represent the accused teens.

The film-makers got so close to the characters that they even affected the trial. At one point, Byers gave them a hunting knife as a gift, and when they noticed it had blood on the blade, they handed it over to the authorities, who put Byers on the stand as a potential suspect in the murder of his stepson (the evidence implicating him proved inconclusive).

Aside from that bizarre twist, the film-makers let events unfold as they occurred. Unlike the groundbreaking documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988), Paradise Lost does not reconstruct the crime or pass judgment. “We want to treat the audience as jury members,” Berlinger explained in an interview last week. “Our point of view is submerged in the film—that yes, these kids are a little strange, but that doesn’t mean they committed the crime. There was no evidence—it was just like the Salem witch trials. Personally, I think there’s a serial killer who’s still out there.”

That viewpoint, however, is so submerged that, according to Berlinger, at least ^ 20 per cent of people who ? see the film (including this viewer) walk out assuming the teens are guilty. And that is largely because of how the camera captures Damien—as a nihilist seduced by his sudden notoriety and impassive to his fate. “He’s an extremely self-involved, narcissistic teenager,” says Berlinger. “He’s his own worst enemy.” The film’s ambiguity, he adds, “has caused me a lot of sleepless nights. I think we did the right thing, esthetically. However, because we believe they were innocent, and they’re not just characters in a movie, I wonder if we didn’t do the best job on the advocacy level. Since we were the stewards of this story, did we sacrifice some of Damien’s chances in trying to make a good film?”

It is a question that makes Paradise Lost even more unsettling. As a dispassionate portrait of an America where the Devil is still a credible force, and everyone seems corrupt, the film does not just expose horror. It delivers viewers into a garden of evil, and forces them to choose their own demons. □

'There was no evidence—just like the Salem witch trials'