Killer of Sheep is an oddity of a film; because of the toils of trying to secure the rights to the music, this 1977 film technically didn’t get a theatrical release until 30 years later, in 2007. This raises a few questions, mostly how this managed to make the original list if it was nigh impossible to be seen, but then again, stuff like Deseret made it as well, so that kinda goes out the window. Still, there must have been something about Charles Burnett’s debut feature that struck enough of a chord with critics to make it onto a must see list. What this is, however, I have no idea; while the film was very well done, I didn’t find very much to like about it.
The film doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a theme, a unifying constant that all the stories of the film revolve around. The little vignettes of the film this time all tie into the life and culture of a poor, working-class black man and his family in one Los Angeles district, and that of the other blacks that live there as well. It’s a Polaroid picture of the place and times, and to that end it serves its purpose excellently. What purpose it doesn’t serve, however, is entertainment; the film languishes due to its lack of a focused story, and its attempts to be as all-encompassing of the way of living of the time, resulting in a vaporous and large, but empty, narrative and content. Killer of Sheep has been likened a few times to the works of Italian neorealism, which any regular reader of this blog knows is not one of my favorite styles (to say the least), and that is probably largely why I felt a disconnect with this film; as I said, it was well made (well, mostly), but it just wasn’t interesting or engrossing, at least for me.
This was made as Burnett’s thesis film for his Masters of Fine Arts at UCLA, and in many ways this does scream of a student project, but it’s more than that; it’s the work of an emerging and blossoming adult director, with stories to tell and films to shape. There was a lot, a lot, of potential that this showed off, but while I could admire it for what it aspires to, I wasn’t in it for the potential; I was in it for the entertainment value, and this had very little. I could respect it for what it does, but unfortunately, what it does isn’t very watchable, aside from a critical standpoint. Even from there, there’s a few technical faults throughout the production that are rather glaring, like choppy sound editing work and an unfortunately (at times) blatantly amateur acting ensemble. Points for headway and for what it strives to achieve, but there were just too many points off for me to give this a positive rating. I really wished I could, and not just because it was a critical darling; I had a lot of positive things to say about it, but I grade films by entertainment value, and this sunk in the water for me.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10