Justice, Served Up Cold
On the surface, you wouldn’t think you could find two more disparate movies than L.A. Confidential and Sling Blade. L.A. Confidential (starring Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey) is a story of drugs, murder, and police corruption in glamorous 1950s Hollywood. Sling Blade (starring Billy Bob Thornton), set in contemporary small-town Arkansas, is a quiet tale of a mildly retarded man, institutionalized as a child for the brutal murder of his mother and just released, trying to adjust to his newfound freedom and life out in the real world.
But here’s where the films are alike: In their quintessentially American settings, both L.A. Confidential and Sling Blade come to the same very unAmerican conclusion — that sometimes the only way that justice can be served is by committing cold-blooded murder.
L.A. Confidential follows idealistic young policeman Ed Exley (Pearce) as a multiple homicide he is investigating turns into something much more insidious. Exley’s naivete loses its shiny edges as pairs up with Jack Vincennes (Spacey), a cop gone Hollywood — he’s a technical advisor on a Dragnet-type television show. The two unravel a case chock full of organized crime, prostitution, drugs, sleazy tabloid journalism, rape, blackmail, and more murder. After Vincennes himself is murdered, Exley uneasily teams up tormented fellow cop Bud White (Crowe), and the two discover the real dirt: behind everything is their boss, the police chief (James Cromwell), in an attempt to take over the local mob.
Exley is, at the beginning of the film, adamant in his refusal to beat a confession out of a suspect, plant evidence, or cover up for dirty cops who do. Exley tells Vincennes that he joined the force to bring to justice “the ones who get away with it all” — like the man who killed Exley’s father and was never caught. But by the end of the film, Exley’s idealism has been tarnished enough that he realizes that the chief will be one of the ones who get away with it all — so Exley shoots him in the back as he’s walking away, and seems not to regret doing so at all.
Sling Blade‘s Karl Childers (Thornton), like Exley, has a moral code of his own to follow. Mistreated and neglected by his parents — he was banished to live in a shed behind the house as a child — preteen Karl murdered his mother and her lover. The film opens more than twenty years later as Karl is about to be released from the “nervous hospital” where he’s been held since the killings. He gives an interview to a college newspaper before his release, and when the interviewer asks Karl if he’ll kill again, he responds to the effect that he doesn’t think there’s anyone he needs to kill.
After his release, Karl befriends a boy, Frank, and his mother, and is invited to move into their garage, much to the dismay of the mother’s boyfriend, Doyle. Karl has attached himself quickly to the mother and Frank, and he doesn’t like Doyle’s abusive ranting. See, as a child, Karl was once given the chore of killing an unwanted newborn brother, which he carried it out because he felt he had to obey his parents, and this has given him an odd respect for the helpless and innocent — as well as imparted the idea that killing may be a way to deal with your problems. When Doyle’s abuse threatens to escalate from verbal to physical, Karl decides that there is someone he needs to kill, and he slays Doyle fast and neat with a lawnmower blade in the same calm manner with which he approaches everything.
Both L.A. Confidential and Sling Blade have the ring of truth to them — only the details are fictional. L.A. Confidential left me melancholy — I’m not sure why. Was I saddened because the world doesn’t allow for idealist young people — or because I was glad the chief got what was coming to him? Sling Blade was cathartic in its own way, too — Karl, living in his own twisted moral world, could take it upon himself to prevent future harm to those he cared about by eliminating the source of their misery.
The American system of justice, in its pure form, is without a doubt one of the greatest inventions of humanity, ensuring a freedom unprecedented in history. But that system would have let Exley’s chief walk away from multiple homicides, and wouldn’t have done a thing to Doyle until he’d beaten and probably killed Frank and/or his mother. Do we admire those who dish out their own version of justice? Should we?
viewed at a public multiplex screening
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for strong language, including descriptions of violent and sexual behavior