Jul 31, 2016 Lessons from Billy Bob Thornton on transcending traumatic obstacles, trusting oneself for creating and succeeding, and handling obsessions
Once I started law school, I kept up less frequently with and about new movies. I can count on one hand the number of years that I had cable television, wanting to focus my attention on more important matters.
Fortunately, my younger brother introduced me to indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch through 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise. Recently, I took out a free trial to Hulu — which is great, for instance, for many Kurosawa films — and looked up Jarmusch, to learn of his cameo Frostee Cream appearance in indie filmmaker-actor-writer Billy Bob Thornton‘s 1996 Sling Blade. And that chain of events led me to Sling Blade two decades after its release .
Sling Blade is deeply disturbing, brilliant, fascinating, hauntingly realistic, well-acted, and well-cast. Wonderfully, the film was a sleeper that connected apparently with many more movie viewers than the typical arthouse cinema audience set. Ideally, the movie will be watched when in a good mood with one or more people in a good mood, because it can find and latch onto one’s darker experiences with life.
Of course, no artist wants to be typecast for just one work, rather than to continue on a dynamic path. Billy Bob Thornton is much more as a person and artist than the twenty year old Sling Blade, but perhaps much of his life and later work spring in one way or another from Sling Blade.
Thornton can well identify with his Sling Blade Karl character (here is how Thornton developed the character). As a child, Karl was abused by his parents by being banned from the house and housed alone in a dirt floor shed in which a hole was dug for him in the ground; treated like a dog. Thornton’s father eked out a living to support the family, and regularly beat Thornton from the age of three or four. At twelve years old, Karl killed his mother and the man with whom she was committing adultery before Karl’s very eyes, and was put into a mental institution.
Despite being abused by his father, Thornton had compassion for him and assisted him while his father was dying. Despite Karl’s recognizing how badly his parents abused him, after being released from the mental institution, he offered to mow his father’s lawn, but his father showed no emotion nor welcome — and clearly never visited Karl at the mental institution– and insisted that he had no son.
Thornton did not kill anyone or get put away. He relates his obsessive compulsive disorder to his father’s abuse, and acknowledges that his art would be much different had he not suffered such abuse.
Thornton has found his celebrated niche as an actor, screenwriter and director. For a long period, he stuck to doing indie films. Thornton seems to know himself well and to fully acknowledge his strengths and weaknesses, which likely serve him well through his success with films.
Having been so terribly abused by his father, Thornton was at risk of not succeeding in life, but at least professionally found a way to do so. He could have pursued the easy path of taking Hollywood jobs merely for the money without insisting on keeping the artistry in his work, but instead he insisted on keeping the artistry and still succeeded. He acknowledges his obsessions and works with them.
Thornton reminds us to stay with our dreams.
Billy Bob Thornton, then, teaches important lessons on transcending traumatic obstacles, trusting oneself for creating and succeeding, and handling obsessions. His struggles remind me again that the put-together appearance of plenty of judges, prosecutors, opposing witnesses and jurors is a veneer held together with nothing much stronger than a piece of scotch tape. Everyone is working with their demons and angels; we must keep sight of that.