Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York
Director: Sydney Pollack
Running Time: 120 mins
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an American film about a group of desperate contestants who compete in an inhumanely gruelling dance marathon in Depression-era California.
Staggeringly bleak yet utterly entrancing, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tells a sobering and devastating in completely mesmerising, almost hypnotic fashion. Bordering on other-worldly at moments, it crafts an ingenious metaphor for exploitation, desperation, poverty and the plight of humanity that reveals itself as ever more relevant the more surreal it gets.
As a social issue drama at heart, this film is so unique, because it’s able to deliver a passionate and sobering message about the real world while retaining a striking air of mystery and eeriness. When the film starts, you’d be hard pressed to expect the themes that the story ultimately brings up, yet it still manages to impress its core message on you right from the first scene.
Set in Depression-era California, the film starts in unnerving fashion as we watch contestants line up to participate in a dance marathon. Yet, for what seems like such a jovial, happy competition on the surface, the aspiring competitors are all clearly desperate, packing into a half-empty seafront hall as they’re given a number, and checked by staff for any health abnormalities.
And it’s from that point on that the central themes of this film really start to rear their head. Though never said explicitly at first, it’s clear that the contestants are being treated like cattle, indiscriminately pushed into participating either by coercion or desperation to make money by any means, and then looked over inhumanely before being given the chance to join in.
That opening scene is hard-hitting enough, and that’s before the story even gets going in earnest. Once the dance marathon starts, the movie takes on a surreal, almost other-worldly atmosphere, leaving you in disbelief that the contestants are really going to try and keep moving constantly for days, weeks and months on end just for the prize on offer.
Following on from the way the film shows how the contestants are treated like animals at first, the way they’re used during the competition is nothing short of exploitation, with the interests of commercial enterprise and the general public playing a role in the complete removal of their humanity.
The rest of the film really does just show the progression of the dance marathon, going on and on and on into what seems like a hellish infinity, with the contestants pitted against one another in humiliating tasks for the entertainment of others, continuing to dance and sway in the face of total exhaustion.
Though afforded ten minute breaks to rest every two hours, the contestants’ existence begins to take on a harrowing resemblance to being in forced labour, as they take their rest in cramped bedding areas, before being called back to the floor by a dehumanising siren akin to a whistle in a factory.
In that, the themes of exploitation in this film have a sobering double meaning which points towards corporate exploitation and forced labour, as well as a criticism of what we would now classify as reality contests, where humiliation of normal people for entertainment is the name of the game.
Coupled with the film’s Depression-era setting, the desperation of its characters and the horrifying extent of the exploitation on display are scarcely believable, yet continue to get bleaker and bleaker and bleaker as the story goes on.
But while the dance marathon itself is particularly unnerving, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a film that prioritises character drama, and manages to tell gripping human stories in the midst of a truly surreal experience.
With stunning performances across the board – in particular from Jane Fonda, Susannah York and Gig Young – this story opens up a staggering window into the plight of modern humanity, crafting complex characters with layered motivations and back stories that make them utterly enthralling to watch.
Though it might seem it on the surface, the ‘good v bad’ dynamic of the story isn’t quite so simple, and as the film unfolds, we see both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in both our protagonists (the contestants) and our main antagonist (the exploitative host of the competition).
That opens up even more thought-provoking ideas about the film’s main themes which allow you to relate to both sides of the story. You certainly sympathise for the contestants as they desperately try to stay on their feet in the hope of a reward in the end, but the film also shows how you too can be party to this kind of exploitation, and the devastating consequences it can have.
This leads the film to a staggering finale which is miles away from anything you could have expected at first, yet is filled with resonant, sobering and even harrowing dramatic depth. Capping off a terrifyingly bleak story with an especially dark ending, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? cements itself as one of the ultimate challenging watches, but one of the most thought-provoking films in history.
Simply put, this film is an exceptional piece of work from the very beginning to the very end. Challenging, intense and relevant to the modern day, it’s a sobering portrayal of exploitation and desperation in society. Yet with a surreal premise and an unnerving, almost other-worldly atmosphere, it’s a striking and unpredictable film that grabs you from the first minute and puts you in a trance right until its astonishing finish.
For all those reasons and so many more, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is hands down one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and that’s why I’m giving it a 9.1 overall.