Old 06-21-2009, 05:17 PM
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Some people say plot is overrated in films, that it doesn't really need it in order to engage the audience. Is it possible for a film to have absolutely no plot, yet still be a great film? Yes, there are many examples of such films (films like "Baraka" and some wonderful documentaries comes to mind). However, "Killer of Sheep" is not amongst them.

It's rather hard to say what "Killer of Sheep" is about as it is not really about anything. The closest thing this film has to a central character is Stan (Henry G. Sanders) who works at a slaughterhouse for sheep. The film mostly follows him around as he interacts with his family and other people in the neighborhood. This is intercut with scenes of the neighborhood children playing. Other than that, not much else occurs.

"Killer of Sheep" is one of those films that tries to get along fine without a plot, but comes up really short. In Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay on the film, he quotes his original 1977 review to describe his reaction after seeing it 30 years ago: "[I]nstead of making a larger statement about his characters, he chooses to show them engaged in a series of daily routines, in the striving and succeeding and failing that make up a life in which, because of poverty, there is little freedom of choice."

Ebert then changed his mind when he added the film to his "Great Movie" list in 2007, but there was little reason to do so as he was right the first time, with the quote being one of the most accurate things he mentions in the essay. There is no larger statement made about these people or their way of life. In fact, there is no cohesion for this movie whatsoever, which turns it into a meandering collection of random scenes that doesn't add up to anything.

It's true that the movie doesn't have a plot, and as I mentioned earlier, a plot is not always necessary, but you certainly must have something to compensate for it. "Killer of Sheep" has the feeling of a film with no center, no coherence, and, as Ebert said, no larger statement. Without something to tie the film together, there's little reason to care about the characters or their situation.

I've seen bad films before that are forgettable about a day or two later, but this film had the amazing phenomenon of being forgettable from scene to scene, that is, as soon as the next scene had started, the previous one had already been forgotten due to its lack of transition, coherence, and inability to evoke sympathy for its characters.

I'm not going to hold its technical faults against it as it was made on a very modest budget of $10,000 dollars. It was filmed on what looked like very cheap film stock and several times throughout the film, it was very difficult to hear what people were trying to say. These are things all directors must deal with when they are first starting out, so it would be very unfair to criticize director Charles Burnett for that.

Another thing I do have to hold against the film though was the very amateurish acting. I realize they were probably trying to evoke that "slice of life" feeling by hiring relatively inexperienced actors, but many times during the film, their acting reminded me that I was merely watching a film, taking me completely out of the world Burnett was trying to create.

This was apparently Burnett's master's thesis at UCLA, but it seems almost impossible that it would have gotten a passing grade, unless UCLA's criteria for such a grade were incredibly lax back then, because if this film was able to get passed, then it seems that any film at all could pass, despite their many faults. 1.5/4 stars.
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