Killer of Sheep Review
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of those films more often read about than seen. Over the years it has steadily built up a terrific reputation – and a place on the US Library of Congress list of preserved titles – yet it’s never been readily available; I recall that it was once due a screening in the UK as part of Alex Cox’s final season as host of BBC’s Moviedrome strand, though only Burnett’s later To Sleep With Anger materialised. As such this DVD becomes one of the year’s essential releases, all the more so given the presentation its afforded here and the wealth of extras. Really quite remarkable for a film that started out as an unassuming, low budget picture.
Someone, possible Kim Newman, once noted that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was the last American movie made in black and white out of necessity. Yet surely Killer of Sheep earns such a reputation, its poverty row nature – the barest of production values, amateur casting – perfectly matching that of the setting: a rundown district in 1970s Los Angeles populated primarily by African Americans. It’s the kind of milieu that simply wasn’t documented at the time – only many years later would John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood signal a change, by which point hip-hop and gang culture had become more readily associated with its inhabitants. With such accoutrements Burnett simply captures life in his own ragged, warm-hearted fashion: kids at play, friendly banter, the sun and general listlessness. There’s a sense of eavesdropping as the camera captures this rarely seen community.
Burnett’s style may be another reason why Killer of Sheep has proven so hard to track down. His influence has never been felt on subsequent filmmakers in any seismic fashion and as such he’s remained somewhat under the radar. Of current directors only David Gordon Green (if you strip away the Terrence Malick-isms) and the Harmony Korine of Kids, Gummo and the “novel” A Crack-Up at the Race Riots spring readily to mind. But then the approach of Killer of Sheep is difficult to pin down, a rough mixture of humanism and noir-ish poeticism, with a soundtrack as evocative as any featured in a Terence Davies film. There’s also elements of vérité and John Cassavetes’ most emotionally naked work, whilst the fact that British documentarian Basil Wright (Night Mail, Song of Ceylon) served as one of Burnett’s tutors at UCLA adds an extra dimension, most notably in the sense of composition. Continuing the British connections it should also be noted that Killer of Sheep is far closer to the Black British cinema of Horace Ové’s Pressure and Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion than it is to the wave of “blaxploitation” movies that were dying out come the time of its release.
Yet whereas the films of Ové and Shabazz were notable for engagement in political issues, Burnett refuses a similar approach. Themes of class, poverty, masculinity and machismo all feature prominently – and their dead-end nature is pointedly conveyed (the throwaway line “All that work for nothing” feels like a key summation) – but Killer of Sheep never romanticises or embraces them, or perhaps even offers alternatives. The method is more to observe than it is to explore, and this is why it is essential that things remain essentially plotless. We simply watch Stan, the slaughterhouse worker of the title, as he interacts with his family and the community at large. But it’s enough, more than enough in fact.
Utilising the UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration, Killer of Sheep looks terrific. The dual-layered disc ably fits the 77-minute feature alongside PCM soundtrack, full-length commentary and intelligent extras. Of course, we need to bear in mind the miniscule budget when assessing the presentation, but aside from the clarity of the original mono emphasising the flaws in its original recording and mastering there’s little to worry about. The image is crisp, clear and demonstrates plenty of detail, whilst the level of grain looks absolutely correct. The original Academy ratio is retained and optional hard-of-hearing English subtitles are also made available. Furthermore, given Burnett’s input on the disc itself, it’s safe to assume that we are getting the film in as fine as condition as could be expected.
Of the extras the commentary with Burnett and critic Richard Peña is the main event, though those with an aversion to such features will find the 20-minute interview with the director (exclusive to this BFI disc) ably sums up the key points: Burnett’s background and influences, Killer of Sheep’s production and critical rediscovery, its inclusion on the US Library of Congress list. Also present are two shorts which predate the main feature but look forward to its style: Several Friends (1969) and the highly impressive The Horse (1973). Again both come in their original aspect ratios, with optional HOH subs and are presented as well as could be expected given the materials to hand. Rounding off the package we also find the now-standard BFI booklet, in this case 12 pages devoted to contextualising articles, full credits for both Killer of Sheep and the two shorts, a brief bio for Burnett and plenty of production stills.