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BRADLEY SHAW Greenville College Baptizing Boo: Religion in the Cinematic Southern Gothic SOON AFTER THEIR MUTUAL WRITING/ACTING/DIRECTING SUCCESSES OF Sling Blade (1996) and The Apostle (1997), Billy Bob Thornton and Robert Duvall participated in a joint interview that focused on their “shared passion” of “a love for the South.” The interviewer, Elizabeth Weitzman, asked the two if they also “shared an interest in Southern writers”: BBT: Well, I don’t know as much about the contemporary ones. I mean, I’m not a real well read guy, but the people I do read, I kind of read all their stuff. Faulkner had a brother named John that not a lot of people know about. Matter of fact, Bobby, I’ve got to get you a couple of his books, ’cause I think you’ll love them. RD: He was a good writer too? BBT: He was terrific. And a lot funnier than William. RD: William you kinda gotta decode when you read, don’t you? BBT: [laughs] Yeah, it’s kinda like reading physics—Southern physics. EW: Billy Bob, it seems there’s a pretty strong connection between Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and Karl in Sling Blade. Did you have that in mind when you wrote the script? BBT: Not consciously, but a lot of times you do something and don’t realize your influences until somebody points it out to you or you sit back and look at it. And not only Boo Radley, but Bobby’s character in Tomorrow. EW: There are similarities between Karl and Sonny in The Apostle, too, in that they’re both compassionate, instinctual, good men who’ve done bad things. RD: Nah, there’s no real kin between them. (101) Duvall’s denial of “kinship” here carries some irony, as he echoes his most important line from Sling Blade. At a critical moment in Thornton’s film, Duvall, playing Karl Childers’s father, quietly snarls under his breath, “You ain’t no kin to me.” Just as Karl’s father asserts something that is both true and false, Duvall’s declaration of “no real kin” here is both accurate and wrong-headed. Duvall is right about the clear distinctions of background, motivation, and behavior that exist between Thornton’s Karl and his Sonny, but in the essay that follows, I want to decode the “Southern physics” of the kinship of these two characters and their relationships to characters, stories, and images that 446 Bradley Shaw appear in several Southern films featuring Duvall.1 These feature films move chronologically from a “domestication” of the South and its Gothic literary tradition in To Kill a Mockingbird to a rich exploitation of the Southern Gothic as a means to explore complex intersections of religious belief, class, violence, and male sexuality. Southern “kinship” relations between these films emerge even in a brief overview. In 1962 Duvall made his feature film debut in the classic Hollywood adaptation of Harper Lee’s popular novel about growing up in Alabama during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird. As the silent “Boo” Radley, Duvall literally steps out of the shadows of the film’s efficient domestication of the Southern Gothic literary tradition. In the 1972 film adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Tomorrow,” Duvall again collaborated with the Texas playwright Horton Foote, who had won an Academy Award for his To Kill a Mockingbird screenplay. Duvall’s interpretation of Tomorrow’s Stonewall Jackson Fentry is often cited as a high point in his prolific career and Foote’s script is considered by many as one of the best dramatic adaptations of a Faulkner work. Twenty-five years later in Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers clearly owes something to Duvall’s thick-tongued Fentry and Duvall’s own dark cameo as the father of this cinematic descendant of Boo Radley confirms many other obvious connections between Sling Blade and To Kill a Mockingbird. While many of these connections are clearly worth exploring, I’m particularly interested in how the Hollywood version of Harper Lee’s story essentially excises Christianity from Maycomb and the religious dimensions of Boo’s strange upbringing , whereas Thornton’s 1997 update...


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