Picks and Pans Review: Sling Blade

updated 11/25/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/25/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, John Ritter, Natalie Canerday

The voice is chilling, rasping away like a rusty buzz saw that hasn't been near oil in decades. The story told by the voice's owner, a mildly retarded man (Thornton) about to be released after 25 years in an asylum for the criminally insane, is even scarier. As a child, he was beaten by his rabidly religious parents, who forced him to live in a dirt hole in a shack out back. Upon finding his mother and the town bully in flagrante delicto one day, he hacked the pair to death with the sling blade of the title, a knife with a long, curved, scythelike blade. "I just saw red," he says. Asked if he will ever kill again, he mutters, "I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody."

Soon enough, a reason finds him. Freed from the bin to make his way in a world he's ill-equipped to handle, this tortured soul travels a path that can lead to only one place in this powerful and perturbing drama. Written by and starring Thornton (One False Move), who also makes his feature-film directing debut here, Sling Blade doesn't have big stars or gaudy scenes, but it does have something better: a compelling story and well-drawn characters. Especially noteworthy are Ritter as a gay man who befriends Thornton and country singer Yoakam as a booze-swilling tough guy who threatens both men. (R)

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