Rare is the piece of art that causes you to feel more connected to humanity, as if you know your fellow man better by having experienced it. Killer of Sheep (1977) may not have that effect on every viewer, but when I exited the theater after having seen it, I felt somehow closer to the world around me. A father and son passed by, eating twin ice cream cones. A teenage girl stopped amidst the flowing crowd to refit her shoe to her foot. A young mother dragged her child away from the store window where he gawked. Somehow, in the reflective glow of the film I had just seen, each of these events took on greater meaning. These were not just strangers on the sidewalk in front of the theater, they were people living out their lives.
Killer of Sheep is a portrait of some people living out their lives. It’s just that. It offers no uplifting message, no transporting story, nothing at all except what you can learn about a neighborhood by hanging out there for two hours. Kids throw rocks at passing trains, at houses, at each other. Hoods hoist a t.v. over the fence. People try to borrow money from each other. And Stan, the ostensible hero of the piece, goes to work. Stan’s son looks for his BB gun, but can’t find it. Stan’s wife wants to have sex with him, but can’t. And Stan goes to work. Stan is the titular killer of sheep, and a resident of a neighborhood where everybody is always accusing everyone else of being poor. Where people simultaneously chide each other for being “country” and long to return to its bosom. Where the adults speak to each other with the casual brutality reflected in their children’s play. The reality of his surroundings, and the hours spent daily on the killing floor, leave Stan so emotionally exhausted he is unable to do almost anything. He is unbelievably tired, but can’t sleep. His stasis is given perfect visual counterpoint in a small vignette in which a bunch of folks get in a car and get ready to take off—then just sit there drinking malt liquor when the car is revealed to have no windshield.
People often mention Bicycle Thieves (1948) when discussing this film, and it does aim for the neorealist milieu. But it is often forgotten that no matter how “realistic” the world depicted in his film is, the protagonist of de Sica’s classic had a clear goal, and the pursuit of that goal keeps the film moving. In other words, it had a plot. The character needed something (in this case, a bicycle for his job) and spent the entire film trying to get it. Compare this to Killer of Sheep: Stan has no clear goals, occasionally complains about, but never attempts to change, the particulars of his life. He is tired and, more than once, resists his wife’s sexual advances. He says he needs a new job, but then gets up and goes to the one he already has. He might mention that he needs some money, but so might his son, and neither of them are doing much about it, nor do they seem to have anything specific in mind to use the money for. This film is entirely plotless. In fact, I could only find one instance when a character mentions something in one scene that is a set-up for something later on: Stan says when he cashes his check, they’ll go buy an engine and put it in the car. Then, after some more local color, Stan does indeed cash his check and go buy an engine. They aren’t able to ever get around to putting it in the car, though.
Is this a perfect film? No—but it is, above all else, true. Many of the bit players—non-professionals, all—over-act, and leading man Henry Gayle Sanders often swallows some of his most important dialogue. Technical considerations are thrown out the window in service of capturing even a small slice of reality. Killer of Sheep lives up to the neorealist dictum “it seems like it’s really happening” only when there are children onscreen, or when Stan is at work. That is not to say that the rest of the film is lacking, only that the two stated circumstances propel the film beyond artifice and into a transcendent actuality. When the children are playing—either as the subject of a scene, or on its periphery—all of the rules of storytelling, of drama, are suspended, and we simply watch them play. Hiding out underneath a house; jumping the small divide between apartment building rooftops; trying to ride a bike that’s obviously much too big; endless rock fights. This isn’t acting. These kids are having fun, or not: at least one of the instances of crocodile tears looks absolutely unforced. When Stan’s daughter serenades her doll, she isn’t pretending to sing along to a record, she just is. When her mother walked into the frame and the widest, most sincere smile I’ve ever seen broke across her face, I had to ask myself: is it even possible to get a four-year-old to act? Or was it just about creating the most comfortable atmosphere so she could just be?
Charles Burnett completed Killer of Sheep in 1977. It took a year, shooting on weekends, and cost $10,000. He filled it with famous music, making it much too expensive for anyone to consider releasing, even after it became one of the first 50 films to be entered into the Library of Congress Film Registry, in 1990. Burnett made it as his thesis at UCLA and never considered the possibility of a commercial release. But the film has had a life beyond its creator’s original ambitions. In 1981, it won a critics’ award at the Berlin Film Festival. It has inspired many filmmakers, and has been one of those films that people travel to festivals and university screenings to see based on the recommendations of wide-eyed friends who tell them they just have to experience it for themselves. One of those inspired filmmakers, Steven Soderbergh (along with the UCLA Film & Television Archive), has been essential to the process of restoring the film and getting the $150,000 worth of music rights cleared. Now Killer of Sheep is finally being given a proper release so that, thirty years after its creation, regular folks like the ones it depicts can walk into a movie theater and see themselves on the screen.