Easy Riders… : They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

banner.jpg

theyshoothorses01.jpg

 

This film should come with a warning label: “Do not watch if you are already in a suicidal state.” Seriously, I’ve seen some downer movies in my time, but as far as gutwrenching, exhausting, draining, and depressing movies go, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has to be up near the top of the list. That’s not to say it’s not good; in fact, if it weren’t tightly scripted, memorably shot, and compellingly performed, it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is at provoking the kind of visceral disgust that it does – there are images and themes and lines of dialogue that I still can’t wrest from my brain a month later, even though, in some cases, I would like to.

It’s the 1930s, the height (or depth) of the Depression, and a bunch of desperate people gather in Los Angeles to compete in a dance marathon. Whichever couple can manage to stay on their feet the longest without passing out and getting tapped out by the judges will win $1500 – not to mention that the radio station sponsoring the event is providing three meals a day to the contestants, not too shabby an incentive itself. At least at first.

theyshoothorses03.jpgAmong the participants we get to know over the course of the first several hours of the competition are a cynical but driven young woman played by Jane Fonda, the drifter she takes as her partner when her initial parter is disqualified before the contest even starts, a young pregnant couple who just arrived in LA after riding the rails from the midwest, a wanna-be glamorous actress, and a middle-aged sailor. We zero in most on Fonda and her partner, but we learn very little more about their past or their lives outside the marathon – in fact, there basically IS nothing beyond the marathon, which becomes a metaphor for life itself.

As the hours stretch into days and days into weeks, and there’s nothing but endless shuffling punctuated by brief 10-minute breaks every couple of hours, the realization hits that these people’s lives are exactly like this. They have nothing to live for, except the hope of a possible prize if they can manage to stand up long enough. They have nothing to dream for, nothing to hope for, except staying on the neverending merry-go-round of the marathon (i.e., life) a little longer than everyone else. It’s an incredibly bleak picture, an existentialism to the point of nihilism, where the individual is unable to give even his or her own life meaning.

theyshoothorses02.jpgYet the film itself is somehow spellbinding. I couldn’t take my eyes off it or turn it off, though there were times I wanted to. (Especially during the grueling “derby” sections, where the host livened things up by having a two minute race, wherein the last three couples across the finish line would be eliminated.) There’s an audience watching the marathon, as well, from the stands, and we’re put in the uncomfortable position of wondering how they can be so cruel as to want to watch the suffering going on in front of them, while also realizing that we’re watching it ourselves. We ourselves are the audience – glad that we’re not as bad off as the contestants, and morbidly curious to find out how much of this they can stand before they crack physically or mentally.

Gig Young won an Oscar for his role as the radio announcer/host, and with good reason – he manages to make a character who is ruthless enough to stage this whole thing, keeping it going despite the devastation it causes, yet who is also surprisingly sympathetic toward the contestants. When the actress finally breaks down near the end and goes a little mad, he’s the one who is able to reach her and he helps her compassionately. It’s not really enough to redeem him for his part in the event, but the film gains depth by refusing to paint him as a one-dimensional villain. In a way, he’s on the merry-go-round, too – just a step above the contestants.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? fades with no more hope than it had at the start – if anything, with less. It makes it a difficult film to recommend, and yet, it has remained with me more than most of the other films I’ve seen this month. It has a searing, indelible quality that I keep mentally returning to, and a raw intensity that balances the metaphorical, cipher-like nature of the story and characters. Sydney Pollock isn’t known as a great New Hollywood director, but the changes in Hollywood at the end of the 1960s allowed him to make the ceaselessly dark and realistic film that this is – you can see elements of this kind of fatalism in low-budget film noir of the 1940s (Detour, for example), but not with this level of relentlessness even there. I’m not joking about avoiding it if you’re easily prone to depression or affected by nihilistic stories; but if you’re not, there are a lot of strengths to the film.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Marc Saint-Cyr
Editor

Great review, Jandy! I saw this a few years back – a very good movie, but pretty damned depressing.

Random trivia: Paul Thomas Anderson includes a little reference to this flick in his music video for Michael Penn's "Try," which itself is pretty great.

James McNally
Guest

I'm also a "fan" of this film, despite its relentless despair. I was amazed to discover that these sort of marathons actually took place. I guess they were sort of like our modern-day television reality shows.

rot
Guest

depressing, I love depressing. Remind me next time it shows up on TMC. I meant to see this for the Dirty Thirties Marathon.

Jandy
Guest

You'll love this then, rot. Heh. I seriously almost couldn't sleep after I finished watching it. Images of the despair kept bouncing through my head and keeping me from being able to rest.

And yeah, I remember it being on the Dirty Thirties list, too – it fit in well with that marathon, too. Pity none of us got to it.

James, yeah – at least the reality shows generally have doctors that force people out before they, like, die. But in terms of the lengths people will go to for a prize, and the kinds of things producers come up with to put them through… And yet, people watch. I'll admit to watching a few myself.

rot
Guest

favorite depressing films:

Bicycle Thief

Wit

Nil by Mouth

All or Nothing

Dear Zachary

Bloody Sunday

Hiroshima Mon Amour

I haven't seen Precious but I get the feeling it is a feel-good movie posing as truly depressing.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

Unabashed fan of All or Nothing!

(and Rot, while I check out Bloody Sunday (thanks!) you should check out Tim Roth's THE WAR ZONE, as bleak and depressing a film as anything…)

For further reference: http://twitchfilm.net/featured/2008/02/twitch-o-m

rot
Guest

Right, I forgot about The War Zone, thats great too. Always get it confused with Nil by Mouth for some reason.

rot
Guest

oh and of course, Naked. That final shot is incredibly bleak, you don't leave that film feeling good about anything.

Andrew James
Admin

Favorite depressing movie is still Leaving Las Vegas.

Jandy
Guest

Timely list from Total Film, considering this conversation: 14 Most Depressing Movies Ever. Kind of a bland list, but that's not unexpected for Total Film. I was a little impressed that they had one as old as 1946. In general, though, I don't find most of those films that depressing – maybe Million Dollar Baby. rot, I don't think Wit was depressing, either.

David Brook
Admin

I'd disagree with Happiness on the Twitch list, as it's really a jet black comedy for me. Fucked up yes, but still that vein of humor stops it from being truly depressing. Also the Total Film list's films aren't all that depressing as you say. Good call on Kes though, that always get me.

Kurt
Guest

The twitch list is me 😉

I agree that Hapiness is funny, but it is also very sad. I find that particular balance in Solondz's work fascinating. There are points in Happiness that push well past jet-black. Particularly the scenes with both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Dylan Baker.

Bob Turnbull
Admin

Just watched this last night…

Boy, the desperation is palpable isn't it? Those flash forward scenes with Sarazin are great too – very surreal in the minimal surroundings and lighting.

Gig Young was indeed pretty great. "Yowza, Yowza, Yowza!"

rot
Guest

Jandy, you didn't find Wit depressing? How is that even possible? To me it is probably the most depressing film I have ever seen, and here's why: it tricks you into it, it gives you a false sense of irony, a buffer from the pain, but in the end that pretense is taken from you, and you are left with the real of the experience, the real of dying. But even more than simply dying, its about wasting the life you had while you had it, making death all the more horrible. Now it doesn't make me depressed about my life, maybe that is how you are interpreting 'depressing', but I feel incredibly sad about the character in the film.

rot
Guest

don't get me wrong there is something sublime about death in Wit, and Donne goes a long way to emphasize that, but what hurts me in the story is how the character's confidence is undone, its an uncomfortable sadness because you know what she lost to get there, and even though there is something greater than the biological happening in the event, I feel the human component over the metaphysical abstractness. Were I mystic, maybe the metaphysical would overpower me, but I am a realist, and what I like most of all about Wit is how it unflinchingly captures the hubris of academia, of living to classify knowledge rather than embody it, and the stakes become your life.