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Ex-Cons

March 31, 2010

by John Farr

John Farr examines films about ex-cons who have abandoned their crooked ways.


Sling Blade (1996)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Released from an Alabama psychiatric institution 25 years after he murdered his mother and her lover, 37-year-old Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) takes a job as a fix-it man in his old hometown. Despite his violent past, the mildly retarded Childers is a gentle soul who befriends a needy young boy, Frank (Lucas Black), and his widowed mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday), who offers to take him in. But Karl’s delicate re-entry into society is disturbed by Linda’s no-good boyfriend, Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), a cruel, abusive drunk who treats him with utter contempt.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Alternately haunting and sweetly affecting, “Sling Blade” is a beautifully accomplished debut by actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, who conceived, wrote, directed and starred in this absorbing drama. (He won an Oscar for his original screenplay.) Thornton’s cathartic, humane portrayal of Childers–a mild-mannered simpleton who quietly protects and cares for Frank and his mom but is haunted by the past–stirs our deepest sympathies. In a nuanced turn, the late John Ritter excels as Linda’s gay friend Vaughan, but the real surprise is country singer Yoakam, whose hateful, hard-drinking Doyle guides the film’s tragic final act.


Spring Forward (1999)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Paul (Liev Schreiber) is fresh out of jail, working to re-build his life even as past mistakes and unresolved issues threaten to undo his progress. Enter Murph (Ned Beatty), Paul’s older, wiser groundskeeper colleague, who subtly mentors the conflicted younger man. In time, they form a special bond, sharing their ambitions, regrets, and hopes for the future.

WHY I LOVE IT:

A simply told yet provocative story about the gift of friendship, “Spring Forward” is an exquisitely handled character piece fueled by a perceptive script and the considerable skill of the two leads. Shooting in sequence over the course of a year, director Gilroy follows the nuances and little epiphanies of this unlikely friendship through four seasons with nary a misstep, giving us the sense we’re watching it all unfold in real time. Touching and true, “Spring Forward” is a quiet triumph.


Boy A (2007)

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

With the support of his caring, avuncular social worker (Peter Mullan), a young man (Andrew Garfield) is released from prison with a new identity to ease his transition back into society. “Jack” lands a good delivery job and then embarks on a tentative romance with co-worker Michelle (Katie Lyons). But he remains tortured over his childhood role in a headline-making murder, a fact that threatens to disrupt his new life.

WHY I LOVE IT:

Based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, John Crowley’s gutsy, hard-hitting drama tackles the question of whether we are prepared to forgive our youngest offenders. Mullan’s character believes in Jack and supports him even as the relationship with his own estranged son takes a tragic turn. Garfield carries the film, though, playing Jack as a fragile, vulnerable, good-natured soul who desperately wants to believe that his past is behind him. Poignant and provocative as it flashes back to Jack’s childhood crime, Crowley’s “Boy A” keeps the tension high from the gripping opening scene.


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