The month has fleeted from us rather quickly (man, this year is moving along, isn't it?) and so it's time for another Blind Spot entry. This one was hard. That isn't to say that it was bad, because it wasn't. It was just hard.
Enough of that.
It’s strange how you can know nothing about a movie and yet know everything about it at the same time. I mean, I can know that ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ is about a dance marathon set during the great depression and that it stars Jane Fonda and Susannah York and yet, my preconceived notion about what this movie was actually about was so far off, SO FAR OFF.
I thought this was a comedy.
Well, I can assure you that there is nothing ‘funny’ about this film. In fact, there are fewer films that I can think of that are this bleak, this emotionally crippling. When the film ends, in those final moments, all hope, all faith, all possibility of a happy future is lost. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so empty at the climax of a film. My wife even turned to look at me when it ended and asked, “Why did you want to watch this, again?”
We watched it because it’s brilliant.
‘The Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ centers around a group of people at the end of their ropes, so-to-speak. Gloria, Robert, Alice, Sailor…remember these names, for you’ll remember their stories. This group of distraught and lost souls enter a dance marathon with their eyes on the cash prize, but more immediately, they are just looking for food and shelter. As the contestants grab their partners and their numbers, they crowd the dance floor, earnestly determined to outlast everyone else, patiently awaiting their rest breaks and supplied food. While they dance, their ringmaster as it were, the emcee Rocky, pulls strings to create a chaotic and desperate atmosphere that pleases onlookers and creates entertainment out of misery, determined to stir the pot and make the exercise all the more ‘worth it’.
It’s not worth it.
I’m going to throw something out there, but hear me out before you disagree; ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ is kind of like an adult, more focused and literal version of ‘The Hunger Games’. This is a story about people desperate for their own survival, cast about and hopeless, agreeing to participate in a game that will strain them, test them and in some cases kill them, all for the hopes of receiving a prize that could sustain their lives. While they are participating in this competition, they are betted on, sponsored and cheered by wealthy spectators who take a fancy to their stories. They’re lives are made spectacle of; they are sold to the public through the lens of commercial marketability. When things aren’t progressing fast enough, they are poked and prodded, forced into a corner where they must exert themselves or bow out, or die. When it is deemed fit, their personal lives are manipulated to make for better entertainment, going as far as to elicit tension and force relationships that may be budding into full-fledged affairs if it’ll gain more attention.
And then, when all is said and done, the winners don’t really win at all.
For a film this desperate and this bleak, it really needed an anchor to make it palatable, and Sydney Pollack is remarkably perfect here. The way he surveys the whole proceedings, coming in at the right moments to make the characters come to life for us, but knowing when to scale back and just give us enough to keep us at a distance is so smart and so effective. He makes us feel for these people and he gives us an innate longing to plead for their happy endings. They won’t get them, but he forces us to pine for it in a way that feels genuine and never manipulative. Films like this are important for they help us to understand a time we can never fully understand, and yet all too often that understanding is marred by a director’s ambition. Pollack knows how to balance to grit and honesty with the façade in a way that is remarkably poignant.
And that cast! Jane Fonda has never been better, ever. Her hard exterior masking her brittle state is so effective, so crushing. Gig Young is the perfect foil, creating a tense atmosphere within his own brashness, but subtly exposing his own desperation. Red Buttons delivers such a harrowing performance as Sailor, a man lost in his own struggle to remain relevant, clinging to a past and devoid of any real future. But the star here is Susannah York. WHAT A PERFORMANCE! She bleeds such honesty, such raw emotional unraveling. Every scene chips away at her soul until we’re left with a shell of a woman. It’s one of the bravest and most compelling performance I’ve ever seen put to film; period.
No, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ isn’t a comedy. In many ways this isn’t even entertaining. It’s one of the hardest films to watch, and when it ended I felt dead inside. Still, it’s perfect, a masterpiece of storytelling importance and a film that I wouldn’t change a thing about.