They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Reviewed By iF Magazine
Posted 02/25/01 12:58:52

"You kids today..."
5 stars (Awesome)

...I can remember when I was a teenager, our local broadcast television channels (all three of them) would run movies in the afternoon between four and six instead of kid's cartoons, "Real TV" and game shows, and my impressionable young mind would be exposed to movies like THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, THE APARTMENT and THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? You'd have to force a teenager at gunpoint to sit through most of these films, particularly THEY SHOOT HORSES...two hours of downbeat drama at a dance marathon in the '30s? What kind of entertainment is that?

But I can remember being hypnotized by this film as a kid, and it's lost none of its power since--and knowing a thing or two about adults certainly adds to the layering of the story. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? follows young Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), a down-on-his luck drifter who through sheer chance hooks up with the embittered would-be actress Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) at a dance marathon in Santa Monica at the peak of the Great Depression. The marathons were America's equivalent of the Roman coliseums: couples dancing in front of a crowd for literally weeks on end, with only a ten minute break every two hours in which to sleep. The last couple standing won a large cash prize...but was it worth it? For most of the losers here (including Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia as a couple a little too close to having their first child, and Red Buttons as a feisty sailor who's got more than a few marathons under his belt) the marathons are the only place to go for free food: seven meals a day, all eaten while standing up.

Of course, it's not all free meals and a roof over your head. You have to listen to MC Gig Young's nonstop haranguing of the audience and participants ("Yowsa yowsa yowsa!") and every weekend you've got to engage in "the derby," a frantic round-robin foot race in which the exhausted participants run for their lives until the three couples who place last are thrown out of the contest. The two derby sequences are what really give THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? its terrifying fascination and goose the film's performances to their heights of desperation: you won't soon forget Jane Fonda dragging her incapacitated dance partner across the finish line.

HORSES was Fonda's breakout performance, a clipped work of tremendous bitterness and hidden vulnerability, and she's more than matched by Gig Young's Oscar-winning portrait of the burnt-out carnival barker Rocky, who paints the whole tableau in glittering show biz terms even as he's heartlessly manipulating both the audience and the contestants. Sarrazin gives his usual portrait of wide-eyed innocence, but that makes the film's heavily foreshadowed conclusion all the more heartbreaking.

The downbeat, nihilistic ending was an earmark of '70s cinema and endings don't get much more downbeat than this one: Fonda provides the film with a moment of devastating emotional vulnerability at the climax of this film. If you're looking for an uplifting triumph of the human spirit I'd avoid this movie at all costs, but if you're seeking something a little more honest, a little more unusual, and something ultimately unforgettable, this is a great choice.

Sydney Pollack's work has seldom been better than this: now would be a good time for the director of RANDOM HEARTS to take a look at the good old days.-- Jeff Bond

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