It’s an old film (1996) but I’ve only just seen this Award winning classic budget movie directed by and starring Billy Bob Thornton. It’s one of those classic experiences of watching movies on long flights. But this one had me glued to the screen.
In a nutshell, the main character Karl was incarcerated for 25 years for the murder of his mother and her lover after he found them making love on the floor. At 12 years of age he at first thought he was protecting his mother from attack but then realised she had been a willing participant and killed her too. A shockingly sad childhood emerges as Karl, rejected by his family from an early age, remembers living in the shed, isolated except for the occasional Bible study with his mother; at six he finds his still alive but discarded newborn baby brother wrapped in a bloody towel and buries him in a corner of the garden. Barely educated Karl nonetheless has a natural skill in repairing lawnmowers even as a child.
The film centres on Karl’s experience of being released from the “state nervous hospital”, declared cured of murderous intent. Rejected by his father he is helped to find a job repairing lawnmowers. Befriended by a boy of about 12 he is offered a place to stay with the boy and his mother Linda. They become, for Karl, the family he never had, and the potential parallels between the lives of the boy and Karl are evident. Unfortunately the mother’s boyfriend Doyle is a violent drunk who hates both the boy and Karl, who he openly calls a ‘retard’. Karl does not respond to the boyfriend’s taunts but is protective of the boy who has befriended him. Despite his Biblical convictions, he takes action in the only way he knows how in order to protect the boy and in a premeditated act he kills the boyfriend before calling the police to hand himself in.
Much is made in write ups of the film of the acting skills of Billy Bob Thornton in transforming himself into the hulking figure of the “slow-witted” Karl. Yet there are two things from the film that struck me most. One is a line from the final scenes – back in the “state nervous hospital” another inmate asks Karl about life outside. As he looks out of the window he says, “It was too big out there”. The second is the underlying message of the file – how we can so easily misunderstand the motives and intentions of others; how easily we can miss the heartfelt reasoning behind actions; and how important those childhood experiences can be on the outcomes of the adult life. Food for thought. And a film deserving of the acolades.