Charles Burnett’s debut feature, Killer of Sheep, resides so far outside the norms of movies-as-usual that I might as well review it as sculpture. Let’s say that it’s made of stone–a possibility that’s easy to imagine, given the great number of rocks that its characters fling at abandoned buildings, passing vehicles, junk lumber and each other. The setting is Watts in the 1970s, which Burnett presents as someplace random and mineral: a mad, bleached accumulation of cement dust and rubble. Yet despite all the chunks of this and that lying around, and despite the work’s deliberate gaps in form (which let time pass with abrupt economy, and locations change without transition), you’re likely to experience this piece not as an assemblage but as something whole, made from a single block. It’s chiseled: each scene starkly lit and cleanly faceted, with its actions, editing, black-and-white cinematography and musical soundtrack standing sharp and clear against the scene on either side. Killer of Sheep is one of those rare films that’s so substantial, you feel you could walk around it, test its weight, observe how firmly and forthrightly it meets the ground.
That ground for Burnett is African-American, working-class and (above all) familial–though which family in particular you will learn about is not immediately apparent. With brusque strokes, Burnett begins Killer of Sheep by carving out for you four figures who don’t belong to the main body of the work, even though they’re representative. They are a silent boy on the verge of puberty, seen in close-up so that his hot eyes occupy most of the screen; his little brother, cowering and weeping so that he’s hardly seen at all; the father, a fleshy man in a T-shirt, who hunches over the older boy, raging at him for his own good; and finally the mother, the only member of this group who is seen in full figure, in motion. She steps forward at the end of the introductory scene to provide its punctuation: a slap to the son’s face.
These first images have plenty of impact but not much visual depth, in part because the unnamed characters are framed and lit to loom in the foreground, more like archetypes than individuals, and in part because Burnett is at heart a realist. He shows no background because the house is bare. There’s nothing to distract you, then, from the theme of Killer of Sheep, which the father literally shouts into the camera, and which is confirmed in young eyes that want to cry but won’t. A man fights–with a brick if he can grab one, with bare hands if he can’t.
This theme will echo again and again once Killer of Sheep focuses on its central character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders): husband, father, slaughterhouse worker, amateur auto repairman, insomniac. He is a powerfully built man, whose torso, bared to the summer heat, might give you another suggestion of sculpture, and whose occupation 9-to-5 is none too delicate. Many times in the course of the film, though, Stan will resist being drawn into violence, despite his grim awareness that he “might harm someone else.” He stands apart, appalled, at the prospect of liquor-store hold-ups, or the sight of a man wounded in a street brawl. He shakes his head in revulsion when approached by two happy-go-lucky acquaintances who want to hire him as an accessory to murder–not to do anything, you know, just to be there. Stan is taciturn on that occasion, though his wife (Kaycee Moore) is not. She sweeps through the screen door of their bungalow, onto the front porch and down the steps, railing against all the men who don’t know God gave them brains. But Stan knows. He’s got so much on his mind that he no longer smiles, or rests, or makes love to his wife.
So, to the tally of formal gaps in Killer of Sheep, you can add gaps of another kind: between men and women, between character and circumstance, between Stan and the world around him.
As much as these breaks are painful, they can also strike you by turns as absurd, uncanny, ironic or just plain funny. A realist like Burnett can find reasons for all these moods right in front of him. The film’s children provide him with an especially rich source, starting with Stan’s beloved young daughter Angela (Angela Burnett), who makes her indelible first appearance wearing a rubber dog mask and sucking her thumb. Later, some of the older kids (not Angela, thank God) demonstrate their high spirits by jumping across the sky–or, rather, from one building’s roof to another–in an astonishing shot that makes your heart leap at its terror and freedom.