“The Exiles,” Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 black and white film about a Native American couple living in a now-demolished Los Angeles neighborhood, has been restored and finally gets a theatrical release today from Milestone Films, the company that last year brought Charles Burnett’s long-lost “Killer of Sheep” to cinemas and plenty of critics’ top ten lists. “The Exiles,” while getting a fair amount of love, doesn’t quite have “Killer of Sheep”s cinematic holy glow.
Manohla Dargis at the New York Times calls the film “a beautifully photographed slice of down-and-almost-out life, a near-heavenly vision of a near-hell that Mr. Mackenzie situated at the juncture of nonfiction and fiction.” She does point out “the film’s great flaw” — the characters have “no sense of the larger world, no politics, no exit, and neither does the film, which swaddles its subjects in shadows and ravishing despair.” Andrew O’Hehir at Salon describes it as both “an awkward, somewhat dated blend of fiction and documentary” and “an astonishing, heartbreaking viewing experience.” “The Exile’s modest but elegant style (sometimes awkward acting and off-sync dialogue) never detracts from its impact; every gesture is redolent of effort and aspiration,” counters Armond White at the New York Press. “If there’s a flaw, it’s that there’s little of the leavening wit in Killer of Sheep’s daily-life panoply.”
“It would oversell this movie to say it’s still as fresh as it must have seemed in its day,” writes Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club. “Better then to admire The Exiles for its specific docu-realist elements, which preserve places and moments that viewers won’t find in any other film.” But Jim Ridley at the Village Voice finds “this 50-year-old film about a Los Angeles neighborhood on the skids and its barely tethered dwellers stands as the freshest movie in theaters.”
For Amy Taubin at Art Forum, the film (and the acclaim it has received) comes with more than a whiff of exploitation:
I have no doubt that Mackenzie was committed to honestly documenting a ghettoized, desperately impoverished minority that a wealthy city chose to ignore, as well as to finding moments of wild poetry in the experience of people with whom he empathized. Still, I could not help but notice that what was on the screen was in fact a bunch of drunken Indians–not Indians acting drunk and pawing at women but, well, the real thing, aided and abetted by the film’s director. I didn’t need to read in the production notes that “8% of the budget went for alcohol” to understand what I was seeing.
A more positive spin of a related sentiment from Steven Boone at the House Next Door:”The film’s conclusion left me longing for a sequel, or some once-a-decade check-ins. Whatever happened to Homer and Yvonne? I mean the real ones as much as their characters. It’s that kind of movie.”
[Photo: “The Exiles,” 1961 – Milestone Films]