The Essence of Quiet Desperation

In praising The Office, I wrote about how well it does capturing the feeling of being trapped, stuck in a job that you hate but unable to see any real potential for change. Killer of Sheep, a film by director Charles Burnett, reminds us what it’s like to be really stuck. His camera takes us on a wide-ranging tour of 1970s Watts, presenting bluntly the poverty and isolation that plagues the area’s residents.

Stan, the movie’s central character, is also the titular killer, making what living he can by working at a slaughterhouse. Daily he herds the sheep to their deaths, slitting their throats and cutting them into their butcher’s bits. After work he tries to fix up the house, but he doesn’t seem to have the right tools. He’s exhausted, but he can’t sleep. He struggles to relate to his family. No matter how much he works, he can’t seem to help slipping further behind. When a group of friends show up to recruit him for a robbery, it occurs to you that it might be in his best interest to do so, if only for the slim shot it might give him at something better.

This sense of breakdown extends into the rest of the community. Children’s games revolve around throwing stones at one another and jumping between third-floor balconies. When kids hurt themselves, they cry, but there aren’t any adults around to comfort them. The homes are dilapidated, with holes in the walls and staircases that don’t quite make it to the sidewalk. There’s no bank, so everyone has to cash their checks at their liquor store; when they scrape enough cash together to get the car running, a tire blows, and they don’t have anything left for a spare.

This unflinching presentation of the daily insults of deprivation is unique in film. Poverty isn’t something Hollywood portrays well—the holes in poor children’s clothing are cut too squarely, and the messy homes lack the necessary seasoning of dust and mold. While Erin Brockovich announces to all who will listen how poor she is, Stan’s protesting response to a friend’s intimation of want rings much more true: “Man, I ain’t poor! Like, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to the Salvation Army if you’re poor!”

While the lead roles of Stan and his unnamed wife were played by actors, the majority of the characters in the film are untrained, which enhances its aura of naturalism. Entire scenes are unscripted, captured when Burnett simply set his camera to recording what appeared in front of him. But even with the poverty that lies at the film’s center, Killer of Sheep isn’t a hopeless movie. The shocks and twists that experience with films of the ghetto has instilled us to expect are absent. In their places are scenes of sadness, but also warmth and humor, such as when Stan plays dominos with a friend and relishes the warmth of a simple cup of tea. Most of all, the movie conveys the stress of getting by to get by, and the uncertainty of whether the next day will bring a little relief or just more hardship.