Billy Bob Thornton and the Southern Gothic

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Articles about Billy Bob Thornton’s films, scripts or starring roles inevitably bring up some combination of his eccentric behavior, Southern background and strange marriage to Angelina Jolie. Any one of those personal details might drive mainstream reviewers to ridicule or dismiss the films he has written and/or directed, but the three together have likely tanked any significant critical appreciation of his entire body of work.

A gifted character actor, Thornton is probably best known as the star of Bad Santa (2003), the blackest Christmas movie this side of…well… Black Christmas (1976). For those of us who are holiday-phobic, Bad Santa is the perfect antidote to the season’s saccharine sentiments. The film pushed the boundaries in terms of barely redeemable characters and tasteless humor, but it managed to provoke rather than offend because it was genuinely funny. The same cannot be said for the recent sequel, Bad Santa 2 (2016), in which all of the jokes fell flat, rendering the material merely vicious and offensive.

I loathed Bad Santa 2, but I am no fair-weather fan of Billy Bob’s. I still appreciate his considerable talents as an actor, particularly in films by auteur directors. He starred as the laconic title character in the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the slow-witted brother in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) and the racist prison guard who falls for an African American woman in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001).

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I also admire the films that Thornton has written and directed, including Sling Blade (1996), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their “Actors as Directors” theme. In this Oscar-winning film, Thornton plays a mentally challenged man named Karl Childers, who returns home after 20 years in a mental hospital for killing his mother and her lover. Karl is the proverbial outsider, doomed to be marginalized by the residents of his tiny hometown in the Deep South. Not only is he notorious for his past deeds, but he speaks in a strange, gutteral voice and he walks with a stumbling gait. Karl’s life is enriched when he befriends a boy named Frank (Lucas Black), whose mother is involved with a violent abuser named Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). As a substitute father for Frank, Karl feels responsible for the boy but uneasy about his mother’s choice in men.

Fathers, especially violent ones, provide a running theme for the film. Father figure Karl is not only marked by his past deeds, but he is at the center of an escalating tension, which portends an ill fate. The title itself hints at the potential for violence. A sling blade, or kaiser blade, is a nasty-looking tool with a large metal hook on the end of a long, wooden handle. One reaches for the sling blade when the brush is too heavy for the scythe. The threat of violence is amplified in scenes with Doyle, a walking time bomb waiting to explode on Frank or his mother. Karl’s own childhood was scarred by an abusive father who had no use for his damaged son and remains hostile to Karl, even after he offers to mow the old man’s yard. Violence, fatherhood and responsibility make for an uneasy trio of themes as they snake through the narrative, intersecting at key points.

Thornton lists Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner in the closing credits of Sling Blade, acknowledging his Southern Gothic roots. A phrase used to describe the work of Caldwell, Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, among others, Southern Gothic is defined by its mix of uniquely Southern characteristics—violence and masculinity, poverty, charismatic religious sects, race, excess and eccentricity, topped off with a touch of the supernatural and a dash of morbid humor. The phrase Southern Gothic was coined in 1935 by writer Ellen Glasgow to describe the work of Caldwell and Faulkner. At the time, it was not a compliment.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird helped  make the phrase Southern Gothic respectable. I see a connection between Mockingbird and Sling Blade, because Karl Childers and Boo Radley, at least the Boo depicted in the 1962 film version, are cut from the same cloth. They are simple-minded but morally complex. And, both exhibit extraordinary strength, which can turn them into violent avenging angels in a split second. The connection to the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird is made stronger by the appearance of Robert Duvall as Karl’s cruel father; Duvall played Boo Radley in Mockingbird. A scene in which Karl emerges out of the shadows of a doorway in his father’s home reminds me of a similar scene in Mockingbird when Boo stands unseen in the shadows of the Finch home until Scout calls him out.

I like Thornton’s rendering of the contemporary South. He has a native’s understanding of the region. In his first screenplay, One False Move (1992), which he cowrote with Tom Epperson, he created Southern characters that defy stereotypes. A trio of armed thieves, including a white Southerner, an African American man and an African American woman, escape the city after a botched robbery. They head for the woman’s Arkansas home town, where the local sheriff, played by Bill Paxton, tries to help the FBI track them down. Not only do a white Southerner and a black urban dweller team to commit crimes with no reference to skin color, Paxton, who is not the good ol’ boy he seems to be, had once been emotionally involved with the black woman before she left for the big city. It is not a depiction of race generally found in films with Southern characters and settings.

My favorite Billy Bob-related project is The Gift (2000), written by Thornton and directed by Sam Raimi. The Gift stars Cate Blanchett as a working-class Southern widow who does psychic readings for clients as a way to make extra money. When she begins to see visions related to a local murder, both the dead and the living turn her life and family upside down. The story can easily fit in the horror genre, but it is more closely related to the Southern Gothic style because it explores themes of violence and masculinity, religion vs. spirituality and the pecking order of social class. The most frightening part of the film is the way that the supernatural elements are so closely interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. Blanchett hangs her laundry on a clothesline as her dead grandmother strolls into the yard; in another scene, she steps into the backyard to take in the night air, only to see the drowned body of the victim hover above her.

Some of Thornton’s films as a writer/director did not fare well at the box office. In 2000, he adapted and directed Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz. Apparently, producer Harvey Weinstein, whose company backed All the Pretty Horses, has a thing against long movies, so he cut Thornton’s three-hour film into a two-hour version that no longer made sense. In 2012, Thornton co-wrote and directed Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a multi-generational family drama. Like many independents, it got minimal distribution so no one saw it.

Disappointed with these experiences, Thornton has restricted his career to acting for the time being.

Susan Doll

4 Responses Billy Bob Thornton and the Southern Gothic
Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : May 23, 2017 2:04 am

ONE FALSE MOVE is one of my favorite post-classic era movies. It really turns racial and cultural stereotypes on their heads. Thanks for mentioning it.

Posted By William Serritella : May 23, 2017 11:59 am

Great read, as usual. I almost always like his work. And The Gift was one of my favorites too.

Posted By George : June 2, 2017 2:32 pm

It’s clear that indie films of the ’90s don’t move the needle here, judging from the few comments posted about them. That’s too bad, because the ’90s indie boom (which spilled into the early ’00s) was the last interesting time for American movies.

“I loathed Bad Santa 2, but I am no fair-weather fan of Billy Bob’s.”

I loathed the first BAD SANTA so much, I didn’t bother with the sequel! Couldn’t believe Terry Zwygoff could make such a repulsive movie, just a couple of years after the sublime GHOST WORLD.

Billy Bob was great in his supporting role in Duvall’s THE APOSTLE, though.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 6, 2017 3:07 pm

To TCM Viewers: Billy Bob Thornton is the guest programmer on TCM for June 7. The films he selected are: The Man with the Golden Arm, Giant, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It will be interesting to hear what he says about them.

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