Timelessness is something of a rare quality in movies; some movies shoot for it but end up being generic, lacking any sort of identity. Others, like “Blow Up” or “Midnight Cowboy” are so fixed in the decade of their birth that to outsiders, they can seem irredeemably dated.
“Killer of Sheep,” a 1977 film by Charles Burnett that has just made it to DVD, is a film that could be set at any time and still be heartbreaking and poignant.
Shot in grainy black and white, documentary style, it’s not a story of a person, or events, but of a place, Watts, that has found a way to live with the everyday crime and blight surrounding it. The citizens of this community continue to go to work, feed their families, but deep down, they all know they’re not getting anywhere and they never will.
The focus of the movie, the “killer” of the title is Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a husband and father who works in a slaughterhouse, and, like all parents, just wants to provide for his spouse (Kaycee Moore) and give his kids a better world to play and live in.
Unfortunately, the best isn’t available, but the neighborhood kids get by; an abandoned lot becomes a field for war games, a broken down factory a fort and an abandoned train a jungle gym. Burnett’s message is pretty clear; these kids aren’t gangbangers and prostitutes, but the possibility is there. Some of them will become Stan’s, who will break their spirits to break even, and some of them will become the gangsters who live for the cheap thrill and die for a cheap price.
Now, ”Killer Of Sheep” is not perfect. With its documentary style (complete with graphic scenes of a slaughterhouse), it’s detached to the point of being cold toward its subjects. And aside from one unbelievably intimate scene, a dance of unspoken thoughts, it could be considered an anthropological film.
But let’s not quibble; thirty years later, the reality of “Killer of Sheep” is still there, be it on East Jackson Street in Rialto or in The Yellows of San Bernardino; the Stan’s still struggle while the gangsters, one way or another, swallow up the promise of youth. Thirty years later, and the “Killer of Sheep” still stings.