April 28, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Equus

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Equus (1977)
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Sidney Lumet

This review is mildly spoilerish -- it discusses important moments from the second half of the film, although they are moments well-discussed in public already. If you've read other reviews of Equus already, nothing here will surprise you.

Ah, the 1970s -- will there ever be a time in film history quite like it again? Both a victim and an instigator of the period's revolutionary counterculture, the movie industry saw a number of profound changes during this particular decade -- including the introduction of a more liberal "ratings guide" to replace the all-or-nothing "approval code" the industry had been using before, allowing mainstream moviemakers for the first time to tackle such issues as sex, nudity, violence, and of course the aforementioned revolutionary counterculture. And boy, did they! In fact, it is this freedom that makes '70s cinema both a curse on that industry as well as a blessing; because as we've all learned by now, when the veil of censorship is lifted in any particular situation, the work that results ranges from brilliant to craptacular, in that there are literally no past examples for which the industry can judge itself. In a situation where experimentation is king, such freedom can be a double-edged sword; many artists, in fact, need the limitations of rules to bring out their best work, need the walls they bump up against in order to shake loose the most amazing stuff they have. And for every seminal movie from the 1970s we now remember -- for every Bonnie and Clyde, for every Apocalypse Now -- that industry churned out another dozen cutting-edge features that are now mostly forgotten, and mostly for good reason.

Equus (movie), Sidney Lumet

Equus, the 1977 film adaptation of the Broadway play (both of them written by Peter Shaffer, the playwright also behind Amadeus), is in my opinion a perfect example of everything both great and awful behind '70s cinema; it is daring, bold, shocking, but also with a plot based on laughably naive psychological theories, and with a visual style that needlessly calls attention to itself. So does this make it a good or a bad movie? Ah, but see, that's the trick with '70s cinema; that unlike our modern times, these contradictory elements are precisely what make the movie worth watching, and what make such films almost more important anymore as historical documents than pieces of entertainment. I mean, don't get me wrong, Equus is still entertaining, and not just something you force yourself to sit through because it's "important;" but if you ever do find yourself at a screening, I think the chances are high that by the end, you'll find yourself agreeing that the 1970s was the only moment in history this particular movie could've been made, for both better and for worse.

Equus (movie), Sidney Lumet

The story is simple enough, if not squeamish from the start: a renown child psychologist (Richard Burton) is brought in to counsel on a recent criminal case in the English countryside, wherein a 17-year-old weekend farmhand (Peter Firth) one day went seemingly crazy and stabbed a half-dozen horses in the eyes for no discernable reason, forcing all six horses to be euthanized. The question of why the boy did it becomes the central one of Equus, with the title being a big beginning clue; it is in fact the Latin word for "horse," an already grand and pretentious way to refer to the creatures. Turns out, in fact, that this kid has quite the complicated image of horses in his mind, because of the dysfunctional way he had been raised; his mother a devout, obsessive Christian, his father jealous that God gets more play than him, turns out that the two have been in mortal struggle for the boy's soul for almost two decades now.

For example, it turns out that the mother had hung this cartoonishly violent painting of Jesus in the boy's room as a small child; enraged by its graphic depiction of suffering, the father swapped it with a beautiful drawing of a horse, which happened to be the exact same size. The movie then suggests that it was experiences like these that led to the boy's current obsessions; that over the years, his brain has literally mixed together the piety of Christianity with the raw pagan sexuality of such creatures, leading to a sorta custom religion whereby Jesus is transformed into the eponymous equine god found in the soul of all horses, a creature to be revered in a sensual way even as it's adored in a spiritual way. The boy has been laboring under such a mindset for years, it turns out; without giving away too much, it is this mindset that ultimately gets him into trouble as well, and through an awkward plot complication (and a whole lot of full-frontal nudity) is what leads him to the mass stabbings.

So what are we to make of such a plot, thirty years after the movie was first released? It's a fairly ridiculous theory, after all, simplistic pop psychology that belies the age in which it was thought up. But then again, it's also a fascinating subject to ponder for a couple of hours, no matter how far removed from reality it might be; that if a child were to be transformed into a horse-worshipping psychotic sexual deviant, through a series of innocent mistakes foisted on him through passive-aggressive feuding parents, how might such worship actually manifest itself? It's undeniable that the best parts of the movie couldn't happen without the worst parts being there; that even as you roll your eyes, for example, during the hammy stream-of-consciousness nude horse ride the boy takes halfway through the film, you also suddenly understand the overwhelming physical presences of these creatures, the overwhelming physical sensations that might lead such a person to develop a sexual-religious fascination with them. (The movie's main female character makes a pretty good point about all this, in fact; that for many grade-school girls, this sensuous awe they experience over horses count as their first-ever legitimately sexual emotions.)

And then of course there's this, that also about halfway through the film, the psychologist suddenly introduces a new argument to the plot -- that maybe it's the psychotic kid who's got it right, in that at least he has passion and intensity in his life, while the only passionate thing the doctor has done in his life is take a series of pampered vacations to the Greek islands. Maybe, the doctor implies, it would be wrong of them to "cure" this kid at all, and instead they should actually all be taking a cue from him. And this of course is a psychological theory we not only now find goofy in our modern times, but actually damaging and counter-productive; so what to make of a film that uses this as the hero's main argument? In the '70s, it was socially acceptable to say such things as, "Maybe it's the psychotics who have things right, and we all need to learn to be more like them," because all accepted notions were up for grabs in the '70s, and all crackpot theories worthy of serious examination. In our contemporary times, though, we know how dangerous it is to take such an attitude towards the mentally imbalanced; so how to reconcile this with a movie that precisely argues for such an attitude?

There are no objective "right" answers to any of these questions, which of course is why I still love '70s cinema so much; because at least filmmakers were allowed to even ask such questions during mainstream movies back then, and the public eager to tackle such questions. Because let's not forget, Equus was considered a "prestige picture" when first produced; Richard Burton, in fact, agreed to be in The Exorcist II by the same studio just because he wanted to be in Equus so much, and indeed won the Oscar that year for Best Actor because of this role. Could you even imagine such a thing happening these days -- of one of the most expensive and biggest-hyped Hollywood movies of the year being a dense psychological thriller about a psychotic teenage boy who sexually worships horses?

No, no -- if Equus had been made today, mid-level executives would've changed virtually the entire plot during development, eventually winding up with a Rob Schneider vehicle about a guy who goes around humping women's legs against his will, and who gets hooked up to a hansom cab for a night because of a bet with his wacky buddy David Spade. This is why it's still worth going back and seeing films such as Equus, even despite the clunky outdated psychological theories and the "let it all hang out" freak-flag aspect of it all; because Hollywood literally doesn't make movies like this anymore, not ones with multi-million-dollar budgets and Oscar-winning actors. It's a shame to be sure, but at least we have a decade full of gems to turn back to; combine that with the small, independent classics that are getting made these days, and that's enough movies for just about anyone.

Out of 10:
Writing: 8.1
Acting: 7.7
Directing: 9.0
Cinematography: 9.5
Overall: 8.4

Random notes:

--For those who are curious, there is a debate about this movie carried on to this day, by fans of the stage play; see, the stage version is infamous for its exaggerated minimalism, its lack of props and sets and the like, while the movie version is lushly real and features actual horses as well. Fans of the stage version argue that something is inherently missing in the realism of the movie; that the metaphorical points don't precisely pop out like they do when watching the play, in that the eye is caught up in the realism of it all during the movie. For what it's worth, I liked the historical qualities the realistic tone of the movie brought; plus, given how hokey and '70ish a lot of the plot now comes across as, I can't even imagine now if you combined this with '70s stage minimalism and hokey wireframe horses. There are others, though, who are sure to disagree with me.

--Also for those who are curious, it was this movie along with Logan's Run that cemented the reputation of Jenny Agutter as "queen of '70s hot British movie nudity." (Although to be fair, she actually competes for that title with Helen Mirren.)

Best viewed: with a film major and a large grain of salt.

Next on my queue list: The Departed, Martin Scorsese's latest movie and last year's Oscar winner for Best Picture. Aren't you glad I'm finally reviewing a movie you've actually heard of?!

Read even more about Equus: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:19 PM, April 28, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |