Equus (1977; Sidney Lumet)
By Daniel Barnes
Adapted from a Tony Award-winning play by Peter Shaffer, Equus came at a seemingly perfect time for director Sidney Lumet to shepherd a prestige production to the screen. A workhorse since his TV days, the economic limitations and concomitant artistic freedom of New Hollywood would particularly benefit Lumet. In 1977, he still rode the glory of the Oscar-nominated Dog Day Afternoon and Network.
Lumet was a director who rose or fell based on the quality of his source material and collaborators. He served the demands of the story, rather than demanding that the story serve his esoteric vision or personal style. Give him a perfectly cast actor like Henry Fonda in a can’t-miss property like 12 Angry Men, and Lumet would deliver a fully-realized vision. However, give him a lot less, and you got a lot less. Despite achieving a creepily tactile sensuality in certain scenes, the shock value of Equus seems especially suited to the intimacy of the stage. It’s a film about man-equine love mostly made of horse you-know-what. Only Lumet’s professional burnish keeps Equus on pace.
Richard Burton plays the tortured and repressed Dr. Martin Dysart, a sympathetic therapist at an institution for mentally troubled youth. An old friend of Martin’s delivers him a special case – a stringy blonde stable boy named Alan (Peter Firth) accused of savagely blinding half a dozen horses. Alan arrives at the institution in a near-catatonic state, his only form of communication a handful of urgently repeated ad jingles. Slowly and painfully, Martin coaxes Alan out his shell. Eventually, he comes to find that the boy’s horse worship is more sexual and fanatical than first realized.
“Emasculated Dad and Bible-Thumping Mom”
The horse love gets traced back to an inciting incident from his childhood – a gorgeous man riding a powerful black steed on the beach gives six-year-old Alan (still played by Firth) a ride. They race up and down the beach, with Alan letting out ecstatic yelps to go faster until Alan’s ashamed parents angrily yank him away. Oh, and the horse is named Trojan. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that this sequence contained some sexual undertones.
From that point, Alan began displacing his homoerotic urges on to horses. Thanks to an emasculated Dad and a Bible-thumping Mom (Joan Plowright), it also became a form of pagan worship. Direct lines get clumsily drawn between cause and effect in Alan’s life. While the film seems curious about why certain experiences and mental states conspire to form our obsessions, Lumet is more than willing to sacrifice mystery and introspection for narrative dynamism.
In another nod to the stage origins, Martin narrates his self-lashing inner thoughts directly to the camera in florid monologues. It’s a tactic that probably should not work, but it mostly comes across. Undoubtedly it received a boost from Lumet’s almost delusional belief that none of what you’re seeing is as crazy as it looks. Lumet also finds a few ways to visually counterpoint the stage-y dialogue, as when Martin vividly describes a disgusting dream about “carving up boys” while we see images of him preparing to go to work.
Equus opens as an institution movie, gradually shifts into a quasi-detective movie. However, it ultimately forms a prime example of the psychotherapist-as-sicko sub-genre. In the end, it is Alan’s madness that gets displaced onto Martin, who equates his own faded sanity with a lack of passion.
Lumet’s film was made more than two decades after The Three Faces of Eve. While Equus is in many respects a viciously regressive portrait of the profession, the film at least doesn’t feel the need to explain the concept of psychotherapists to us. Equus is also progressive enough to posit that psychotherapists are fallible, while Lee J. Cobb’s country therapist in The Three Faces of Eve carries the expertise of Freud and the moral authority of Santa Claus. Cobb’s character forms no emotional involvement with Joanne Woodward other than concern for her mental well-being. By contrast, Equus leans hard and heavy on the concept of psychotherapists getting “too close” to their patients.
There is a lot of Sturm-ing und Drang-ing in Equus about “relentless displacement” and sexual repression, but the film predictably leans on the notion that the only “really crazy” people are those who seek to eradicate madness. It’s a trope beloved in Hollywood, a town where smug satisfaction rides along the Santa Ana winds. However, allow me to present this alternate theory: the really, really, really crazy people are the ones who cripple innocent animals because a telepathic horse God gets jealous of their new girlfriend. It’s a fine line, but also a crucial one, and the horse-brained Equus couldn’t care less.
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Categories: ESFS Festivals