Like the best horror and opera, “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” is always stylish and always grim.
In the pantheon of essential movies you only need to see once because their impact is so specific and traumatizing, “They Shoot Horses, Don't They?” is my ultimate recommendation. It's a movie that promises cynicism from the get-go, accumulates snideness and rancor with each step of its harrowing Depression-era dance marathon, and — without ever straying from its blatant nihilism — offers up something beautiful: a story as carnivalesque as a Hitchcock thriller but as prescient as “Network.”
I refuse to tell you much more about it. I guarantee you will not regret watching it, and I promise you will wonder why its message, power, and performances aren't more vaunted. If you're not gasping at Susannah York's Oscar-nominated unraveling, you're shrieking at Gig Young's Oscar-winning lunacy. If Michael Sarrazin's plummy-eyed innocence isn't breaking your heart, you are almost certainly pumping a fist at the dead-eyed grit of Jane Fonda in one of the coolest, harshest performances of the '60s.
We spend a lot of time ballyhooing the advent of actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift, folks whose method chops ushered in a new era of unaffected performances. But with the exception of performers like Susan Hayward and Shelley Winters, that renaissance didn't happen for actresses. The '50s and '60s served as a playground for affable types like Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn. It wasn't until the late '60s and icons like Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, and Ellen Burstyn emerged that we finally saw what “f*ck you”-fierce looked like in distaff dramatic performances.
Before you descend into this pit of glamorous despair, consider this dialogue exchange in the first ten minutes of the film.
“If you think about it, cattle ain't got it much worse than us,” one man in line for the dance marathon notes.
“They've got it better,” Gloria (Jane Fonda) replies. “There's always somebody feeding them.”
Enjoy. Or better yet: Don't.