Review: Killer of Sheep

I have waited a long time to see Killer of Sheep -- nearly a decade maybe, since I first read about it. But some have been waiting much longer. The film's "unseen masterpiece" status is as curious and intriguing as it is unfortunate. It is hailed by the most influential critics including Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls it "conceivably the best single feature about ghetto life that we have". And it's by cruel circumstance that this 1977 film has never been commercially released -- due to legal issues with music rights -- until now. Thus at last, one of the truly few holy grails of cinema has made its stop in Toronto.

Stan is a quiet, tired man, who toils away in a slaughterhouse to support his young family. They live in a poor, predominantly black LA neighborhood teeming with bored children and petty thieves. At home, Stan's relationship with his wife is empty and uncommunicative, but they stick together both for the benefit of the children and because opportunities outside the family are few. There is very little plot beyond this; the film is about moments -- episodically assembled, though beautifully and contemplatively observed with just the right amount of detached honesty. There are moments that are absolutely unforgettable.

Killer of Sheep is Charles Burnett's UCLA thesis project, made when he was a 33 year old grad-student. It was cobbled together with a student budget of $5000, shot on black and white 16mm short-ends, and with a cast of non-professional actors. Knowing this fact, and seeing what you see on screen is a remarkable revelation. Yes, superficially, the film is rough and raw in spots, but what ultimately emerges is a deep, rich current of sustained melancholy that lingers in the mind long after you leave the theatre.

Much has been said that the film feels like the work of Italian neo-realist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti. I was also reminded of Scorsese's Mean Streets, but without the flash and violent catharsis, since both films share a jagged sense of romantic nostalgia advanced by the skillful use of pop music. However, unlike the wall-to-wall approach Scorsese has become famous for, Burnett gives the quiet, stiller moments just as much attention and consideration. In the end, it's a much gentler film, simplistic even, but just as powerful.

The works of Ozu and Bresson also spring into mind, but that only suggests how cinematically articulate Burnett is and was at the time, and how sorrowful that Killer of Sheep would be his only masterpiece.

Highly recommended.


Two more screenings left:

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 6:30 PM
Thursday, June 28, 2007 6:30 PM

At Cinematheque Jackman Hall

(Photo: Milestone Films)

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