Killer of Sheep (1978) Poster

User Reviews

Review this title
37 Reviews
Sort by:
Filter by Rating:
A masterpiece
tvspace23 August 2000
Raw American Poetry. Killer of Sheep takes the immediacy of Italian neo-Realist cinema and shapes it into a dreamy, beautiful montage of everyday life in Watts, Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s.

The revelations, in the year 2000, are surprising: black kids in the middle of the Ghetto acted up and goofed off exactly the same as white kids in small towns across the midwest...but not like black OR white kids today. The folks in this movie have an innocence about them that survives, along with their dignity, regardless of the social decay around them. You are left with a simple fact: these are still country people, who happen to be living in a city.

For anyone, like me, who grew up in the 1970s, the movie aches with a sense of a lost era, when being a kid meant building forts out of left-over construction materials, throwing dirt clods, and laying down big fat skidmarks with your bicycle.

And all this is just the subplot. The main storyline, of a slaughterhouse-working father trying to run a stable family in the midst of urban decay, is simple, understated, and powerful. The musical sequences inside the slaughterhouse rival Kubrick's ability to juxtapose music and image in a manner that creates infinite levels of meaning and irony. You can only sit with your mouth half agape and think, 'aaah.'

Like La Jetee, this is a movie that will allow you to see life anew, with children's eyes. Never pass up a chance to see it.
82 out of 92 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
An observatory masterpiece
Andres Zambrano15 April 2007
Around the seventies, when films like Annie Hall, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever ruled the age, Charles Burnett silently crafted Killer of Sheep, his thesis film for UCLA. Thirty years it has eluded us—that is, until now. The result, although aging those thirty-years, is a masterpiece; an authentic and one of a kind piece of raw American poetry that simply and silently observes life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles.

An unshakable and insightful study of citizens living right above the poverty level, Killer of Sheep is both open-ended and observatory. The magnificent fly-on-the-wall observes the life of a slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who grapples daily with poverty, misbehaving children, and the allure of violence. Stan is a simple guy, diligent, smart, and fatigued. He has a family including two kids, both entirely the opposite of the other. Stan's daughter (Angela Burnett, the director's child—one of the most preternaturally talented performers I have ever seen) is the playful and learning type, while the other—his son—is never home, discourteous, and always getting himself into trouble. The characterization in Killer of Sheep is both extraordinarily untouched, but it is meticulously observed and felt; every single character—although not all are important—has an underlying purpose and reason for being where they are.

The camera work in Killer of Sheep, much like the film itself, is perfect, like if one could be observing the town through his/her DV camcorder. Shooting in 16 millimeter and operating it himself, Burnett's camera observes everything, and is seemingly everywhere. Everything is important too, because every close-up and tracking shot only brings us closer to the undistinguished characters themselves; the more the camera observes, the more one feels closer to them.

Burnett shot Killer of Sheep over a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of just under $20,000, using friends and relatives as actors. This needn't be a reason to demean the film; if anything, one must take it as a sheer pleasure: the acting of his family members essentially makes the film beautiful sans outside reason, making it truly fathomable. Yet again, Burnett's camera simply observes; much like the Italian neo-realism age, Killer of Sheep's milieu speaks for itself—one could even call it American neo-realism.

At its core, Killer of Sheep is masterfully comprised of evident economic denial, hidden desire, and pure living; in other words: untainted life. There are many scenes in Killer of Sheep that demonstrate this; the most memorable demonstrating the cruelty of Stan's son towards his sister: while Stan drinks coffee at his table with a neighbor, his son aggressively asks his daughter where his bee-bee gun is. The daughter, wearing an unforgettable dog mask, shrugs. The response from the brother is, of course, hurting her. Stan gets up and starts chasing the son; he's already out the door.

In 1990, Burnett's opus magnum was declared a national treasure by Congress. 17 years later, it has finally gotten a spot on the big screen, a DVD release date also due for later in the year. Easily one of the finest observational films ever made, Killer of Sheep more than lives up to its official designation as a national treasure: it lives up to life itself.
52 out of 58 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Remarkable independent portrayal of Black urban life...
zumlinz11 April 2000
Somewhat reactionary to the black exploitation films that usually define the Black cinema experience in the 70's, Killer of Sheep presents a realistic portrait of a Black urban L.A. community. Burnett's method of telling a story, using the camera in the most unobtrusive manner, enlivens the film and draws the viewer into a world not frequently seen on film. Stan, the depressed insomniac lower middle-class worker struggles to provide for his family, love his wife and maintain responsibility to his community while haunted by the historical futility and impotence of the African American male. In Killer of Sheep, Burnett aptly demonstrates his knowledge of the cinema aesthetic and his proficiency with the camera while telling a most compelling story about the Black experience in America.
42 out of 50 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Well worth a look
Margie2430 March 2007
Before writing this review, I read the four comments that were already posted- by tvspace, zumlinz, seabiscuit, and bartman. Their ratings ranged from two stars to ten stars, and one reviewer here (in addition to Manhola Dargis of the NY Times) hailed it as a masterpiece.

After viewing the film this afternoon at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, I have to say that all four reviewers have valid points about the film.

It certainly has an "amateur" feel to it, including the acting of some of the smaller roles, as one of the previous reviewers pointed out. But I found much that was beautiful about it, and saw a sort of perfection in its lack of polish- polish and formula that is so commonplace today in not only big studio pictures, but many independent films as well.

While certainly not about "nothing," it does lack a conventional narrative, as was pointed out previously as well. But it is this absence of an obvious agenda (other than to portray typical, everyday life in Watts from the point of view of one family) that allows the film to work so well as a loosely structured, poetic slice of life. It is an amazing mood piece, and it made me feel quite sad. Yet there was humor, warmth, and hope scattered throughout the generally melancholy film.

I think this is the kind of film that will effect people differently, as is already evident from the first four reviews. If you don't catch this film in the theater this time around, it will be available on DVD in the fall and is well worth watching. Nowadays it seems to be in vogue with hotshot filmmakers to recreate the specific,unique look of older films, using all sorts of advanced technology to turn back the clock. Here's a chance to see the real deal-something raw and authentic from a talented filmmaker as he emerged.
40 out of 49 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Small Scale Poetry of the Streets, circa 1977
Joe Stemme7 April 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Ever since moving to L.A. in the mid-80's, I've heard of KILLER OF SHEEP in almost hushed tones - as if it were some well-kept local secret that non-natives couldn't be let in on. And, the film HAS been elusive. I can only remember a couple of screenings having occurred in the ensuing two decades. Up until now, I didn't know that it COULDN'T be commercially released because of the music rights. Ironically, the music rights cost the current distributor (Milestone) 15 TIMES what the original budget of the entire film was ($10,000)! The money is well spent as the Blues infused tracks add dimension to the piece.

The small band of folks who championed the film over the years obviously were enthusiastic. So much so, that KILLER OF SHEEP entered the National Film Registry (for Preservation) in 1990 along with the likes of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, DODSWORTH, RAGING BULL, TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE etc. - Incredibly heady company.

All this for a Student thesis film? It seems unfair in a way to put so much on such a small scale project. It simply, but poetically, depicts life in a black neighborhood around South Central L.A. in the mid-70's. What little plotting there is revolves around the daily struggle of a family where the father works in a meat factory - literally, a killer of sheep. Take what you wish for the symbolism there.

There are amateur aspects - actors looking into the lens, awkward edits, mediocre sound, unsteady camera moves etc. Hopefully, most audiences can look beyond the limitations and take the film on its own level. Another interesting angle is to examine the fact that it came at around the end of the 70's Blaxploitation cycle. Of course, there are no heroes or even anti-heroes here. Just the simple ordinary folks who really lived at the time.
10 out of 11 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
This bitter earth
chaos-rampant24 January 2012
Yes, can be cold. Young, soon too old. What a wonderful song and film as this song.

This is the picture here; a life of drab, interminable drudgery, hard work when it does come by and small pleasure, perhaps only the slow dance before the window. They will tell you the attempt here is for neorealism, and you will maybe note how the palette and commentary has been later studied by other prominent directors, black or not. Not so here. Our gain is that it's by a filmmaker who still hasn't learned too much about the craft to lose the innocence of looking and the commitment to keep doing so. Who doesn't have a hell of a lot to say and just wants to film. And who maybe knows this life and neighborhood intimately enough to take us to where it's ordinary and real.

All things considered, it's an evocative portrait of life at the outskirts. It's raw and affective in ways that Malick had to train himself over the years to accomplish. And that Jarmusch and Gordon Green (George Washington) only mechancically repeated in later years. It is about nothing in the sense that every life is, there is no story outside what we choose to remember as one.

So this earth can be cold. But maybe not so bitter after all. It's a moment of happiness that new life is finally on the way. Are they crazy? Who'd be happy to bring a child into this? Things don't work when they should, it's all an uphill struggle to even drive to the racetrack. Love grows distant and sullen. But the kids are playing everywhere you can find them. Young, soon too old. But happy that each one gets to go through it this once?
5 out of 5 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Stangely Compelling Film
Black Narcissus7 November 2007
For the life of me I wonder what prompted the people at the London Film Festival to screen this film at the NFT.

Filmed sometime in the 70s in Black & White it's the story of a family told over maybe two days and is strangely compelling.

There's no typically Afro-American Urban film scenes just a story about a family and what do. Children play games, dad goes to work and mum looks after the home, an everyday story of life. But don't let that put you off because the film really draws you in somehow. It features a great soundtrack of tunes taken from the 30/40s and some strange (to my mind) editing.

Do try and see this film if it's at a Festival near you because you too will be drawn into it as I was.

Weirdly Wonderful Film.

Black Narcissus
17 out of 23 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
One of a kind
jdevriend14 June 2007
Warning: Spoilers
You have to get past the strangely composed shots, which make it look like there was only enough budget for one take. You have to get past the occasionally garbled and screechy sound. And most importantly, you have to get past the idea that a movie has to have a plot. This one doesn't, but it wouldn't be the same if it had one.

The thing that struck me the most is how every character must, in some way, fend for themselves. Stan, as the head of the household, has an emotionally draining, low-paying job in a slaughterhouse. He knows that help isn't on the way for his family, especially from the city of Los Angeles, which seems more interested in tearing down the ghetto than doing anything to help its residents prosper. (By the way, there are only two white people in the whole movie. One of them works with Stan in the slaughterhouse, and the other is a burly, street-tough woman who manages the local liquor store. This subtly reinforces the reality that everyone here is on their own.)

Stan's wife has to fend for herself emotionally. She needs comfort, romance, even passion. But his job is so bleak, low-paying, and futureless that he doesn't have anything to give her when he gets home. And the two children are too young to understand what's going on.

The kids in the neighborhood don't have toys to play with or activities to go to. They have to fend for themselves when it comes to keeping themselves amused. So they make do with playing around demolition sites, see who can stand on their head the longest, and throwing rocks at trains, or each other. Education is never mentioned at any time - in fact, it's entirely possible that some of the kids don't go to school at all.

Stan's friends, as well as everyone else in the neighborhood, have to do whatever they can to make ends meet. Sometimes it's legal, like buying a secondhand motor to try and get their car working again. Sometimes it's illegal, like trying to cash a bogus check at the liquor store, or burglarizing those who are less able to defend themselves.

There are so many other small but profound commentaries throughout the movie that it would be hard to list them all. And the last two scenes (I guess you could call it an ending, although there really isn't one)are incredibly powerful and moving when you add them to everything else you've seen.

This is truly a one-of-a-kind movie. There was nothing like it before, and there hasn't been anything like it since. I'm glad I was lucky enough to see it.
12 out of 16 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
A piece of humanity
madmaxmedia13 April 2008
It's not about blacks, it's not even necessarily about the poor, it's a piece of humanity through the eyes of a sensitive filmmaker, and as such is a subtle and delicate thing. Unfortunately, all the 'hooplah' (Library of Congress, student film, etc.) about the movie I think basically buries the beauty of this movie for many viewers.

The beauty of this movie are in the subtle details that Burnett catches. The film has been described as being 'documentary' in style, but to call it that misses the deeper beauty of many of the scenes. To call it a 'slice of life' may be a bit more accurate, but even that doesn't sit well with me- it implies a sort of haphazard, random, cutesy story meant to seem ordinary but 'mean' more, or end up wrapping itself around a common Hollywood plot and message (love conquers all, try hard and don't give up, etc.) This movie is more like a wonderfully telling and sensitive and subtle piece of poetry. Without a significant plot line, all there may be are details, but the devil is in the details. Details captured from real life, not clumsy metaphors to assigned like a color-by-number picture.

I don't like giving ratings, especially too soon after I see a movie. But I'll rate it a 9 for now, and perhaps revise later (though I doubt I will ever lower my score.) A movie like this can be challenging to watch. There's no parts to piece together or 'figure out', there are no big character arcs or big dramatic moments. I'll leave it to each own's opinion whether this is a good or bad thing, but all the hyperbole aside, in my opinion this is a great movie.
8 out of 10 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
slum reality
mukava99126 January 2008
One of the things I found interesting and original about this film was the ironic and off-kilter use of music. The underscoring includes whistling and other disconcerting sounds that go against the standard, traditional cinematic grain. While black children play in the desolate Los Angeles cityscape we hear on the soundtrack Paul Robeson's recording of "The House I Live In," a song from 1945 that deals with the ideal of racial harmony in America; what a contrast between this high-minded song and the brutal reality of 30 years later. A scene of children throwing rocks at a passing train looks like a newsreel from one of any number of modern African countries in the grip of civil war and poverty. Director Charles Burnett faithfully and accurately captures the texture of daily life in a 70s slum where life is merely existence sustained by a vague but constant hope that things will improve one way or another. The domestic scenes are painful to watch, so barren and stunted are the characters' lives. Similar territory has been explored surrealistically by David Lynch (ERASERHEAD), satirically by John Waters (PINK FLAMINGOS) and with wry formality by Jim Jarmusch (STRANGER THAN PARADISE) but Burnett treats it as cinema verite.

Unfortunately the technical level of this film is only so-so (yes, I realize this was a student thesis project). Although the shots are interestingly composed, usually starting with a close up that makes you wonder what you are looking at and then widening to give you a context, the uneven sound recording and poor diction of several performers distance the viewer.

I think that for showing us the reality of this particular cluster of humanity at this particular time in history KILLER OF SHEEP deserves the attention it has been getting,
7 out of 9 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
A Rediscovered Student Film
Seamus282922 April 2007
This film was written,directed,produced,etc. by a UCLA film student in 1973, but only given a brief run in theaters four years later, after which was plunked back in the can to sit on a shelf for nearly 30 years. I just had the opportunity to see this grainy, kitchen sink black & white film at one of my local art cinemas. I admired the visual look of this film (very do it yourself), and admired the concept of an ensemble piece ('tho without the use of Altmanesque over lapping). I admit, I found some of the dialouge unintelligible (due to the poor recording of the soundtrack---I'm guessing who ever operated the microphone picking up dialouge didn't have much experience in this field). The use of music in this film was well implemented (which ranges from classical to soul to blues and beyond). 'Killer Of Sheep' is a flawed, but none the less, watchable film that should be viewed by any & all serious film fanatics (and should also be screened during Black History Month, as a timeline of creative black cinema).
14 out of 24 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
memory lane
central_tex23 May 2007
I couldn't wait to see this movie when it came to town. I only read about it in magazines. I've never knowingly seen a movie before that has been declared a national treasury by the national film registry.

The first thing that stood out for me is the way the kids were playing. I pictured myself playing those games and wearing those clothes. The editing of the film is nothing like what happens in todays movies. Our attention span is much too short. There is a scene where two men are carrying an engine down a flight of stairs and into the back of a truck. The camera holds while the men struggle to carry it, pausing in mid-flight for a rest and then continuing on. This film is very real in the sense of how the neighborhoods looked back then and the struggles with money and staying on your feet. Even though I am not from the area, this film reminded me in some ways of how I grew up. I wasn't born yet when this film was in production.

My expectations were set very high for this film because of its previous awards. I started to wonder why it was selected for the national film registry. Possibly because it showed what the area looked like in the post-watts riot era, or was it a film that was created in the blaxploitation era but set itself apart from other films, or did it have to do with watching how kids grow up or how African-Americans were living at the time. I could be unfairly trying to compare this film with the movies that are block busters in our current time. Make sure you see this film.
8 out of 14 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Simple but not simplistic
ecjones19515 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Because critical and personal opinions about small films like Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" tend to be vehement and sharply divided, the less you know about such films going in, the more you may appreciate them.

Production cost figures I've seen vary from $10,000 to $20,000. Whatever its price tag, it was far below minimal. But if you are of the right disposition, you may find "Killer of Sheep" to be more powerful and affecting than many studio films with big name stars and multi-million dollar budgets.

With "Killer of Sheep," Charles Burnett manages to create a very good movie even though it has no real beginning, middle or end and an anonymous cast. Nothing happens and everything happens. He documents Stan (the slaughterhouse worker of the title), his family and their friends in Watts over a period that could be a day, a week or a month. Yes, the film is a "slice of life," but that phrase has been applied so often to films critics didn't know how to categorize that it's become almost meaningless.

Shooting in black and white wasn't an artistic conceit, it was an economic necessity. Casting friends and family members wasn't Charles Burnett's attempt -- I'm quite sure -- to say "I can make an actor out of anybody." There's only one scene I can recall where the camera cuts from one character to another, and many setpieces are filmed with a static camera. In this way the film does remind me of 1960s French and Italian movies. But in the early films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, the characters seem to merely feign boredom. Burnett's characters often live it.

Stan, his wife and their two children live in a rented house which needs constant repairs. The always exhausted Stan has to make these himself, as well as worry about their son who is about 13 and inclined to follow the lessons of his father's friends, who believe any problem can be solved with the smash of a fist. Stan is not like this; he is pragmatic, thoughtful and quiet, and above all, decent. Stan's wife is more restive. She's a housewife with a fierce beauty who has never stopped freshening up for her husband before he comes home. Her sexual frustration is a quiet undercurrent. The one day when she and Stan are on the same wavelength, they dance in silhouette to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Even viewers unfamiliar with this song will almost certainly be moved, maybe to tears. Exquisite, tender and understated. Like all the music on the eclectic soundtrack, the use of this song at this time is exactly right.

Stan's wife has given up trying to rein in her unruly son. She doesn't pay a tremendous of attention to her daughter, either. But the five-year-old girl is good as gold and never causes her mother any worry. In one of the most effective scenes in the entire film, the little girl (Burnett's daughter) sits on the floor playing with her dolls and singing along -- loudly and with abandon -- to Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons."

The only real story thread running throughout the film involves the rebuilding of a car engine, dropping it into an old Dodge sedan and taking it out on a joyride into the country. This provides a little comic relief, and part of this sequence brings to mind the Laurel and Hardy film "The Music Box." But it's ultimately sad, too. Without any money, putting together a working car from "pieces parts" is an exhausting and time consuming ordeal. And once the car, packed with neighbors, is ready for a test drive, it soon develops a flat tire. Of course there is no spare. This calamity is greeted with the weary laughter of despair.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it's a lack of bitterness and frustration and anger that permeates "Killer of Sheep," although some characters are embittered and some prone to violence. Charles Burnett could just as easily have adopted another tone, one just as realistic but far darker. He tones nothing down; Stan and his friends live tough lives, no question. There is little rest for the weary. Some of their neighbors are going hungry. No sooner is one thing fixed than another broken. And through it all, the children -- and there are always many of them around -- amuse themselves with precious few toys.

The scenes of sheep being led to the slaughter could serve as symbols for Stan and his family and friends. But they don't. Everyone in the large cast becomes an individual, and they still retain some control over their fates. Charles Burnett could easily have made his film a social commentary or a polemic, layering pity with sentiment. But he didn't. In the vernacular of the mid-70s, he "tells it like it is." And few American filmmakers have ever documented ordinary lives with such objectivity and compassion.
4 out of 6 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Not quite the neo-realist masterpiece I expected...
aleckscott11 February 2010
I'd never heard of "Killer of Sheep" before, but it sounded interesting after doing some research, so I went to a screening. It helps to know that this was a student film and should be judged accordingly. The good news is that there are some well composed shots and the material was handled with care; one could tell the filmmaker had an affinity for his subject. There were also some good performances by the lead actors. The bad news: no story beyond the daily existence of ordinary folks; poor sound quality; some bad acting; and more than anything, a real lack of editing; the pacing could have been better. I've subsequently read several reviews; some over-rated, some disparaging. This film is more an abstract portrait of a place and time and less cinematic storytelling; take from it what you will. Rating on a student film scale, I'd give it an 8 for ambition and execution. Properly edited, maybe 10.
4 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Love without and with life
daveleft5 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
First off, I rarely write, but I found this recently and a friend suggested I put it somewhere online. I wrote it immediately after seeing the film at Film Forum 8 April 2007. I include this as a "disclaimer" as it was never meant to be a review but just something I had to get my thoughts out about. So please excuse the format/profanity.

It's a lonely, quiet space in a sane man's head when the will to exist is slowly diminishing and the recollection of such life seems foreign. The Killer of Sheep is a sick, sick movie. Unbelievably moving and real. Stan is a lover, a father, and above all a man of great integrity. A survivor with no real prospects who refuses to do the thoughtless things that his black peers were doing to give their lives a falsified passion -> crime, gambling, and F-ing other women. His job is to kill sheep and provide for his family. He also doesn't sleep though - he can't "count sheep" as an acquaintance says. If counting sheep is asking for a loss of consciousness, the symbol goes much further than the state of sleeping. He has no desire to lose his mindfulness, his gravity as a presence in his moment to moment life. He simply must bear it all and the price is extraordinary. One of the most beautiful scenes I've ever seen: him, shirtless, dancing slowly with his wife with the paleness of the open shades behind him. As she slowly pulls his hand and body near to her, he is malleable; a man doing actions. No caress, no touching of his own, no look into her eyes. His distance is unfathomable and it hurts her (I believe she was billed as "Stan's Wife"), crushes her spirit. But she is like him, with outward frustrations she never really directs at his person. The penultimate scene isn't the dance - it is their return from a failed trip to the track, where they sit on a couch taking in their simple misfortune together. The track didn't work out - their day to be together, to dress and feel beautiful, above all to experience some excitement together ends in the living room, back where life is real and bereft of these things. At this moment, though, with only the slightest of gestures, Stan acknowledges that he still does have life within him. He does touch her on the arm, slides closer and puts his hand on her lower thigh. It isn't the ravenous passion of a man with nothing but a d-k - it is the knowledge of himself, his world and what he is. They do not make love, but you feel they will. Stan will come to understand the value of mindlessness (mindfulness?) in the form of love, the strength of love, the rejuvenation that only love can provide. Killer of Sheep is also about the creation of family and the safety family can provide. It opens with Stan berating his son for not sticking up for his younger brother but there is little interaction between the children and Stan after that. His words to his son seem forced - done out of the perfunctory role of fatherdom. Until a scene with his young daughter who stands silently between his kneed and rubs his shoulders and plays with his face after he has thwarted another of his wife's advances. Again only slightly and almost through his non- action does Stan show that he is accepting this love. That this love is strong and safe. He doesn't leave, but lets his daughter continue as she looks over at her mother. She doesn't seem to be questioning her mother as to the appropriateness of her actions (which I originally wondered about) so much as saying TO her mother "It's OK. He's in here. I can feel him. There is still something left." The ending does not leave you hopeless, though it is Stan grabbing the sheep by the ankles to be strung and bled out. There is hope - not in financial prospects and the promise of one day living the dream, but hope that man can find his way into and out of a passionless life. Subtle themes and subtle actions always give movies the ultimate depth. There is no "Home Makoever" ending - some contrived Oprah BS to send people off with teardrops. The teardrops are of endurance.
2 out of 3 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
An often moving work of poetic realism
bbrooks9412 May 2012
Charles Burnett's criminally forgotten work (and career overall) is a borderline non-narrative exploration of the monotony in a residential, run-down suburb of Los Angeles. It feels (and I suspect is for many of the scenes) incredibly real, and Burnett is masterly in his direction, drawing from the likes of Robert Altman, Roberto Rosselini and Satyajit Ray. Yes, there is barely any characterisation, some moments are plain dull and there's no real emotional drive to the film. However, Burnett set out to make a film about real life, his childhood, using the music he loved (a fantastic, hand picked soundtrack) and he's done that perfectly. Could have done without the slaughterhouse scenes though.
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Rough-edged but remarkable Social-Realist rediscovery
BJJManchester29 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
KILLER OF SHEEP was a coursework film made by UCLA student Charles Burnett, born in America's South but living in Los Angeles' Watts area for most of his early life as numerous other Southern-born African-Americans migrated to.It wasn't intended for commercial release,but taken on and restored for major distribution over three decades later,it has emerged as a rediscovered classic and is now regarded as a superior example of poetic neo-realism.

There is very little plot in KILLER OF SHEEP and no conventional narrative,just various interconnected vignettes of humble abattoir worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his family,friends and associates.

With no major actors in the cast,indeed mostly amateurs and non-professionals,filmed in grainy black and white on 16mm film,with live recorded dialogue and background noises,this could've quite easily turned into a dreary,pretentious plod on familiar avant-garde film student lines with little general appeal to but a few sparse people,and the film does occasionally ramble pointlessly.Yet Burnett incredibly makes the experience thoroughly endearing,moving and funny,treating the Black population of Watts with dignity and compassion.

The main view of African-American cinemas at the time was of Blaxploitation,with various dudes,trouble men and women cutting a swathe through their enemies and rivals with as much no-nonsense violence as could be mustered.Aside from a brief conversation with two neighbourhood bad boys (which ends in criticism,not bloodshed), KILLER OF SHEEP admirably portrays the drab but honourable life of the working and lower classes of Watts, of people who will never reach or aspire to great heights but simply want to get on with life as best they can.As the main character Stan,Sanders is very impressive as a downtrodden abattoir worker,not liking his job but providing an income for his family and making attempts to enjoy himself in his free time with them and friends which usually end in failure,but despite this he keeps on working,never showing any signs of violence or aggression to anyone,as was often the stereotype of African-American characters in early-mid 70's American cinema.

Despite the absence of plot and narrative,Burnett brings the minor details of urban life in so many memorable moments;the neighbourhood kids playing around train lines and backyards;Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore) doing her hair not in a mirror but a saucepan lid;children on roofs jumping from one apartment block to the next;Stan attempting to construct a car together with various friends so they can have a day out,which is eventually thwarted by a flat tyre.But most memorable are the choices of music that Burnett utilises on the soundtrack.There are a few classical and modern soul tracks,but he mostly features old Blues numbers from greats like Paul Robeson,Lowell Fulson and Dinah Washington.Perhaps the film's highlight is Stan and wife's slow,sensual dance to "This Bitter Earth",trying to bring a spark of passion back into their declining relationship.The frequent scenes of doomed sheep in the abattoir may be a rather obvious metaphor to Stan's family and friends,but Burnett rather cleverly always has music playing over the soundtrack in these scenes,almost as a mark of respect for Stan and his workmates for the tough if not harrowing way he has to earn a living.Such choices of music give the film an impressionist,poetic charm that elevates the dull,soul-destroying lives into a touching and life-affirming story of decent,ordinary people we rarely see,both past and present.The film appropriately ends with Stan doing another shift at work,keep on keeping on as best he can.

Despite some poor technical quality regarding sound and vision, and some variable,naive acting,this in fact adds to the rough-edged charm and effectiveness of KILLER OF SHEEP,a first-class essay in semi-documentary neo-realist film making which millions of people can identify and empathise with,proving you don't need glamorous stars,a high budget,elaborate special effects or vast length for a memorable film,which may not make innumerable millions for large corporate studios but has enough little visual and verbal touches that will live in the psyche with those fortunate enough to have watched KILLER OF SHEEP.

RATING:7 1/2 out of 10.
1 out of 1 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
This is Real Life
gavin694214 April 2016
Stan works in drudgery at a slaughterhouse. His personal life is drab. Dissatisfaction and ennui keep him unresponsive to the needs of his adoring wife, and he must struggle against influences which would dishonor and endanger him and his family.

Film critic Dana Stevens describes the film's plot as "a collection of brief vignettes which are so loosely connected that it feels at times like you're watching a non-narrative film." There are no acts, plot arcs or character development, as conventionally defined.

What happens in this film is not a documentary, but in many ways it may as well be. How many films really focus on the black community anywhere at any point in time? Very few. And this one does that, in all its gritty and glamorless reality.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Film Realism Done Right
joehemmings6812 October 2015
In cinema today there's a general trend of naturalistic film making, trying to subvert performance, and create true to life scenarios. It's rarely successful, since these films are all still very heavily scripted and thus the hyper realism is really only skin deep. Killer of Sheep for the most part feels like you're watching life play out before you. The stories that make up the characters lives are not stated through exposition as they would so often be, but you're left to interpret what you see. It's incredibly engrossing as you're left clinging to every detail as you learn about these very believable characters. The film doesn't follow any real narrative, but is rather a poetic snapshot of a particular time and place.

The film is often quietly funny, and quietly sad. The film won't hit you like a train, but it will affect deeply with it's beautiful lingering shots and fine performances particularly from the central couple. I also have to applaud the children in this film who appear an awful lot. There are ways to get the most from children in films, since trying to get them to act and read lines never goes well. The children here just run roughshot and their shenanigans are a joy to watch.

The final thing I will say, is this is perhaps the most progressive film to ever focus on African American characters and culture. This was made during the time of Blaxploitation cinema, but I would argue it's still leaps and bounds ahead of modern efforts. Much of modern cinema dealing with African American life is explicitly with regards to racism, where as this film ignores the subject entirely. This is merely about people.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere
Ellie_Rahmati21 January 2015
This is a film made in a Neorealistic manner both in form and context addressing the difficulties of a Black urban L.A. community, Burnett's choice of how to depict this situation in the 70s doesn't have anything to do with the main stream cinema where everything has to somehow portray the American dream, this is in another words anti-American dream.

Killer of sheep is the narrator of false hopes, of lives that in despite of all the efforts made go nowhere, of a promising change that never comes, what makes this film so interesting and different with its other Neorealistic peers is the director's approach towards his characters, this is not a pitiful look on their lives but an understanding and at times a praising one that acknowledges how valuable and beautiful these lives are, of course not to a point of romanticizing them and this is I think a very important achievement for Burnett.

To see this point it is crucial to pay close attention to the music and how brilliantly it has been used, these blues songs are saying everything that the characters can't say out loud or can't put to words themselves, that's why they gain this liberating quality in the film, particularly the song "This bitter earth" by Dinah Washington which can be heard in the ending credits and during the scene where Stan is dancing with his wife who is suffering from her husband's frustration and is doing everything she can to help him, only way she knows how but fails every time and it adds up to her own frustration. It is necessary to point out that these people aren't portrayed as depressed or suicidal, there is a very fine line between being depressed and being frustrated.

The film focuses often on the children, their presence is essential to how the film is constructed. Their games, their behavior towards each other and towards their parents answers many questions about the whole community itself. These are smart kids that spend most of their time in the streets and learn how to defend and take care of themselves, both girls and boys, but due to lack of opportunities can't go anywhere and don't seem to have a brighter future than their parents. Here is why the film serves as a social critique towards the power structures that aren't assisting these communities in anyway, they are all seem to be left alone in this post-apocalyptic zone to survive on their own. After watching this film I couldn't help but to think about everything that has been happening recently in the United States, the 2014 Ferguson unrest and then the death of Eric Garner and how apparently not much has been fundamentally changed.

The film cleverly and truthfully chooses to stays away from reproducing the image of black community that media has been feeding people every day, I think this might be one of the very few times in the history of American cinema that black people are not in any way associated with drugs or crime or police which is what makes the film so refreshing and eye opening to watch.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
The film holds a nearly legendary status inside the industry – which may or may not be fully deserved.
TonyPolito25 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
A set of fictional, slice-of-life, plot less vignettes portraying slaughterhouse worker Sanders' day-to-day struggle to survive and hold values while living in the 1970s Watts ghetto. Sanders' depressed state falls from his realization that he and those around him, unable to ethically escape their social/financial plight, are not so not unlike the placid, milling livestock awaiting their turn down the chute of death, that there is a much larger killer of sheep about.

Shot on a B&W shoe-string budget toward a UCLA film school thesis project, it drips with rough editing and continuity – that increment the aura of gritty realism. Total reliance on Watts locations and neophyte Watts actors evidences clear influence of Italian neorealism. Prohibitive soundtrack costs - and a scrumptious soundtrack it is - left the master rotting in the can.

The film was lavished with solid reviews at debut, due to its stark contrast with black-exploitation films of the day, and ended up on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. A UCLA-restored version re-debuted in 2000. The film's 30-year absence, like that of a died-young Hollywood or rock star, has accumulated the film a nearly legendary status inside the industry – which may or may not be fully deserved.

Opinions as to whether this film is worthy of its kudos will vary wildly. The slaughterhouse analogy is insightful, honest and difficult to deny. There are many subtle, poignant moments that touch and persuade. However, lack of plot will cause many a viewer to pan it. And while this black director's cultural effort may have been singular in its day, it just does not stand so tall against the talented work of current black directors (eg, Spike Lee's persuasive "When the Levees Broke.")

Recommended, but requires great patience of the viewer.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
If Great Migration stories was a genre of its own...
telttu-ella6 April 2014
When I first saw this film on Finnish TV, I was totally blown away. After, I tried in vain to find information on the Internet that could explain why I had this strange feeling that for once, I had seen an American film that didn't seem alien. The critics that I had found on the net kept talking about Italian neo-realism and such, as if the film's Europeanness was based on a decision of style or some such superficial aspect, but I found that hollow. It wasn't until I found the DVD (published by British Film Council), and had a chance to listen the commentary track that it dawned on me. The Great Migration! That's it! Living in Finland, and being a member of the first generation born in city right after an overwhelming majority of Finns had uprooted themselves from countryside, I am fully accustomed to the plethora of material (books, films, TV programs, bot fact and fiction) that we have needed to process the national trauma of the Great Migration. It all happened so quickly, in less that two decades, and we have had to come to terms with it and how it shaped us. The Italian neo-realism, too, appeared at a time when Italian peasants were flocking to cities and trying to redefine themselves. Content is what dictates the similarity style, obviously.

Once I had realized this, I was left wondering why the Americans have done so little to address this topic on film. There are books, probably much more than I know of, that deal with the Great Migration, but strangely, it seems almost non-existent on film. The only films I can mention, besides Killer of Sheep, are the many documentaries on the Dust Bowl, and of course Grapes of Wrath on the fiction side. But these films only skirt around the Great Migration. Killer of Sheep is right at the heart of it. I amazes me that Americans have not felt it necessary to take up this theme more prominently.

The children's play at the opening of the film reminds of myself, at ten, moving for the first time to an area that in American parlance would be called a project, and playing with all these other newcomer kids in the dusty environment that was still being built around us. Getting immersed in the film from get-go like this, I never could distance myself from it. The existentialism is so close to a selection of Finnish cinema from the '70s. The Chaplinesque "I'm not poor" monologue that seems totally improvised, but is not, could well be from a Finnish movie too - if our actors ever could act that well. By Chaplinesque, by the way, I am not referring to the old slapstick chap, but to the later Chaplin of Limelights.

This film is rare gem of totally recognizable we-have-been-through-it-too, in a desert of make-believe reality. I do realize that for (a great majority of) Finns, what followed the first landing in cities is rather different than what happened to the characters of this film. I tend to think of Boyz n the Hood as a sort of follow-up, the next generation telling their story. But to me that story is, like I said about American cinema in general, totally alien to me. I just cannot fit myself into it. But that doesn't take away the fact that to me, Killer of Sheep feels so thoroughly familiar.
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
Killer of Sheep
Jackson Booth-Millard4 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
From the book of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I was interested to know the meaning behind the title of this film, I assumed wrongly it might be in a foreign language, I was correct that it was one with a cult status, I was definitely intrigued. Basically in Watts, Los Angeles, African American man Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is a downtrodden hero of sorts, he works in an abattoir, and in this slaughterhouse the most common animal animal killed for meat is sheep, he has become desensitised to the monotonous violence, and he lives in poverty with his Wife (Kaycee Moore) and children, Son (Jack Drummond) and Daughter (Angela Burnett). Working in drudgery and having an unsatisfying home life he feels constantly exhausted, drifts through a near meaningless existence, very small events happen around him, including his involvement in a criminal plot, a white woman propositioning him, and him and his friend Bracy (Charles Bracy), he sees no way to alter the course of his life, as he cannot make ends meet and finds no real life joys. Also starring Eugene Cherry as Eugene. Almost nothing really interesting happens in this film, to the leading character of the title, there are some small moments with stereotypical characters of the community, and of course you see the many sheep slaughtered, but it has a certain something that keeps you watching in a way, it certainly works well as alternative blaxploitation movie, of which during the 1970's there were many, an interesting drama. Good!
0 out of 0 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? | Report this
An error has occured. Please try again.

See also

Awards | FAQ | User Ratings | External Reviews | Metacritic Reviews