As it did last year with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Milestone Films now liberates Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 debut The Exiles from undistributed purgatory. It’s a long overdue fate for the indie, a loose night-in-the-life fiction-doc hybrid about young Native Americans living in Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill district whose lustrous black-and-white cinematography, amateur performances and freewheeling atmosphere recall one of its seminal contemporaries, Shadows. Yet to compare Mackenzie’s film to either Burnett’s or Cassevettes’s is to overstate not only its historical stature but its artistry, given that despite enveloping atmospherics and stunning aestheticism, Exiles is a more limited and problematic work.
Though hardly driven by plot, the narrative as such (composed of semi-improvised scenes in real-world settings) revolves around the evening activities of unemployed wastrel Homer (Homer Nish) and his doormat wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), the former a layabout drunk who spends the night boozing and gambling with friends and the latter a lonely mother-to-be who takes in a movie, gazes at department store window items and pines for a baby whom she hopes will spur behavioral change in Homer. Both are plagued by disconnection—Homer from his parents and heritage, Yvonne from her spouse—and consequently roam the city’s streets (similar to their nomadic ancestors) in search of contentment. Their aimlessness, also shared by sloshed ladies man Tommy (Tommy Reynolds), burrows into the film’s fabric, so that the director’s radiantly lit, sumptuously evocative nocturnal snapshots of busy streets and emptying watering holes seem to exude a miserable longing for unattainable pasts and unease about indistinct futures.
Mackenzie deftly conveys homesickness in a transitional fade from still photo to vibrant memory, and alienation via a sea of strange, animated faces and bodies lining a crowded bar. Yet while the mood—aided by contemplative narration from its three protagonists—is spot-on, the dubbed dialogue is so persistently lousy that it besmirches the proceedings’ otherwise-entrancing beauty. While the thin story is emboldened by fly-on-the-wall immediacy, its portrait of Native American men as loutish, abusive alcoholics unable to do more with themselves then beat up women and each other ultimately succumbs to the blunt stereotyping Mackenzie claims he sought to avoid.