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.
Among 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.
Yet 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.