Killer of Sheep Movie Review
Begun in 1976 and filmed over the course of two years, Killer of Sheep is an episodic and graceful film about life in Watts, California. The plot is loose, consisting of strung together conversations and short takes of family life, but the movies' raw power is in the ad hoc, wordless sections of the film: children jumping across a rooftop, a young girl singing to her doll, a couple dancing in their living room.
Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is the eponymous sheep killer. He works at a slaughterhouse cleaning the floors, prepping instruments and herding the sheep -- it's a numbing, oppressive job, but he's doing something. Stan's wife (Kaycee Moore) and young children (a daughter and an older son) spend their time at the apartment block where the kids roam in small groups, tussling in the dust. Unlike Stan, the majority of the adults in Killer of Sheep are jobless and lost, wandering from one scheme to another, from one dead end to the next. Stan drifts through this bleak landscape a somnambulist, awakening only to chastise his son, go to work, and help a friend try to fix his car.
Burnett's film moves slowly and at times awkwardly. The dialog can be stilted and yet oddly affecting at the same moment. The acting is naturalistic, practically off the cuff. In a scene where Stan's daughter stands in a doorway wearing a hangdog mask, the film pushes into a sort of gritty surrealism -- a lyrical moment that's less about artistic pretension than it is about the interplay of childhood fantasy and adult reality. There are many such moments in Killer of Sheep; all achieve a similar poetry. Some are even quite funny: a sight gag with a car's missing windshield, two men bungling the theft of a television. And then there's the soundtrack, Burnett chooses the songs carefully and they flit in and out of the film like characters all their own. From Paul Robeson's "The House I Live In" to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," they breathe life into the wasteland.
Incredibly, Killer of Sheep is not a depressing film. While existentialism hovers just off screen, the characters Burnett documents joke and laugh, cry and sing. They are not ciphers for some larger, political meaning but complicated, eccentric, real people who wrestle with their lives and emerge from the broken glass and dusty streets as authentic as anything.
Burnett made Killer of Sheep for $10,000 and the UCLA Film and Television Archive spent nearly $150,000 restoring it and clearing the soundtrack rights. That's a small price to pay to rescue this essential film from obscurity.