Sling Blade, the recent hit film that rightly won Billy Bob Thornton an Academy Award, is now out on video. As viewers of the film know, it is a marvelous tragedy of classical simplicity. But what has not been mentioned is that it is also a tale told in the tradition of Southern literature. As the late M.E. Bradford reminded us, the protagonist in Southern literature is the community—not the alienated individual of modernism—and so it is in this film when a retarded man twice becomes a murderer because of his primitive decency, trying to uphold right in a society permeated with vice.

The story opens as the main character is about to be released from 25-years imprisonment in a hospital for the criminally insane. He is no longer considered a threat to society. His childhood and youth had been a horror of misuse by his family and community. His crime was killing his promiscuous mother’s lover with a Sling Blade, and then killing his mother when he realized he had not committed an act of rescue and defense but an unwanted act of interference.

Upon returning home, he is befriended by some of the townsfolk and by a boy and his mother who have been taken in by a vicious live-in boyfriend. Tragedy ensues as the retarded man once more comes to the defense of decency in the only way he can—another murder. If you want to know any more, you’ll have to rent the flick.

One hesitates to recommend any film today because the medium, like all of popular culture, even at its best, is so suffused with the general corruption of manners and morals that there is always a chance that one will lead astray a good Christian family trying courageously to shield itself from the ambient evil. But those who have wanted to exorcise all trash and filth have too often been unable to tell Shakespeare from Harold Robbins. (Prurience is only the other side of the coin of excessive prudery.) If we were to avoid all unpleasantness, we would have to excise most of the great art of the world. I do not think any young woman’s morals have ever been corrupted by reading Shakespeare (or Faulkner) despite their works being replete with seduction, murder, rape, greed, incest, and every vice known to man (even bestiality in Faulkner).

My blessed grandmother was shocked when she saw me reading Gone With the Wind. This was about 1954 or so. Grandmother was a Southern patriot, but she thought the book glamorized immorality. In fact, most of our ancestors, the pious ones, said the same thing about novels in general. I still think they were generally right. However, it is too late. I feel the same way about rock music that grandmother felt about Gone With the Wind, but I could never shield my children from it entirely. And it seems to me they have corralled and tamed it, taking whatever was of any value and throwing away the rest. We cannot run away from the ambient corruption. Better to face it and master it (at the appropriate age, of course), despite the risk.

This is a roundabout way of plugging Sling Blade. But what Hollywood has needed, ever since D.W. Griffith fell out of favor, was some Southern storytelling talent behind the camera, and in this film it’s present. Ironically, if I am reliably informed, the events upon which Sling Blade is based took place in Northern California. But for Hollywood and probably the mass audience to believe in a retarded murderer, he must have a Georgia accent. Lucas Black, who plays the young boy, is perfect. So is country singer Dwight Yoakum, who impersonates a villain so well that I did not even recognize him until I read the credits, even though I knew he was supposed to be in it.

This is a story about justice and decency and murder and good and evil. What more could you want? Exercise discretion with your children. Stable youngsters can probably profit from this, have their moral development enhanced. This is not Homer, Shakespeare, or Faulkner, but it is an honest attempt, in a corrupt age and medium, to address—as they did—human tragedy.