Sling Blade - Rated: SIMMERING

First, the good points: there are two towering central performances in this film. One is, of course, Billy Bob Thorton's portrayal of Karl Childers, the slow-witted institutionised killer whose progress back into society we follow in this film. The second is that of a child, Lucas Black, who plays Frank, who befriends Karl. This child's performance is honest, unaffected and pivotal.

The other good point is the script. In the early stages of the film it is close to perfect. It is sparse, distinctive and poetic. It rings true. In fact the script is far better at the beginning than it is later on. In the later stages of the movie you can tell that the script has been fleshed out from the monologue it was in its first incarnation as a one-man show on stage. The script loses its beautiful economy towards the end, and Karl becomes a tad too articulate. I'd rather see him remain taciturn, like his ancestor Boo Radley, from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Still, that's a pretty harsh criticism of excellent work. Even the minor characters are written and filmed with great insight and love - Billy Bob is clearly a man who knows these people and their world intimately. He acts, writes and directs as a man who knows and loves the subject-matter. When he shoots the homes of the poor-white-trash who populate the film, even the rubbish looks beautiful. The rusting engines and spare parts in the backyards nestle in the lush green grass, glistening with dew! Even the disgusting, greasy food everyone eats is romanticised! And the Daniel Lanois score is stunningly beautiful, brilliantly appropriate.

But, as a director, Billy Bob makes a geat writer. Back to film school for you Billy Bob! You need to learn how to keep faces in the frame. You need to learn that there is more in the directorial repetoire than just the two-shot, the close-up of yourself, and the panoramic landscape shot. You need to do more than tilt the camera downwards and shoot overhead to achieve drama. But you seem to know how to get great performance from most of the cast - with a couple of exceptions. John Ritter is quite wonderful in a difficult role. Robert Duvall is a shock. The actor who plays the prison hospital governor - I don't know his name, but I do know he played bugler Hannibal Dobbs in F-Troop(!) - is a revelation. His is a beautiful, sensitive portrayal, carving out a detailed character in a few moments flat, with hardly any script support.

Unfortunately, one of the weakest performances is that of Frank's mother (Natalie Canerday). I was never convinced of her attraction to her abusive boyriend or reasons she allowed him to stay. And Dwight Yoakim's performance as Doyle, her boyfriend, was also weak. Why was this strong and caring mother drawn to him? At one point she says: "He's had a hard life." But that is not reason enough, as her son reminds us: most everyone in that world has had a hard life.

There are whole bits in the film that should have been cut. We don't need the film opened up to introduce us to Doyle's friends and his band. The impromptu poetry reading is pretty funny, but as Lubitsch once said to Billy Wilder "I don't care how good it is. If it needs to be cut, cut it."

This is fundamentally a dark, interior piece. Opening it up throws the pacing out. The structural problems that were caused by extending what should be a chamber piece do show towards the end. The inevitable crisis takes so long to arrive that we actually feel a bit let down once it arrives, maybe even expecting a twist, which doesn't come. So, this film is not the miraculous work some have called it. But it still packs a hulluva punch emotionally. And Karl Childers is a great creation. You've gotta give Billy Bob credit for creating, writing and playing him so well.