Jealous. I’m jealous of Alan Strang.
It’s very common to say, and as commonly unearned, “That movie made me think.” They’ll say that of movies like The Matrix (1999) or Inception (2010). What they really mean is, “That movie made me puzzle.” If you came out of The Matrix questioning whether the world you lived in was real, then I can’t rightly say that you are capable of thinking at all. More likely you were trying to suss out the story lines to fully grasp the inter-connection. “So, they go into the big beach area because that’s the subconscious and if you die in the dream when you’re heavily sedated, you go to the subconscious for some reason.”
Equus (1977), by God, makes you think in the very grown-uppest sense. That is, if you think about the kind of things I think about–what’s good for people and how are lives made better? That is certainly Dr. Martin Dysart’s (Richard Burton) dilemma. Really, this story comes at the culmination of Dysart’s pent up crises all spilling out. Dysart is a psychologist, a very good one, and he’s tasked with helping Alan Strang (Peter Firth) who has just blinded six horses and is clearly unstable. Dysart is supposed to help Alan. Dysart has this recurring dream where he is the head priest in a sacrificial ritual where he disembowels children and they all stare back at him with this look he can’t describe. Now, it’s time to carve up Alan. He does so in a way modern viewers may be used to–he tries to get Alan to talk about what happened while also researching Alan’s life and everything important to him.
Dysart is tortured because he doesn’t know why. He know what happened and how it affected Alan. Each part of his lift comes together to create this person, but why? Why did that happen that way and in that order? And what is his job if he doesn’t know why? He is tinkering with something he doesn’t understand all to make people “normal.” “Normal is the indispensable murderous god of health and I am his priest.” But the real thinking cap moment, for me, was this:
Esther: You can take away his pain?
Esther: Then that’s all you need to know
Dysart: Because it’s his. He made it.
I am quite of the opinion that the goodness or badness of things can be distilled to a question of whether it has the propensity to create happiness and/or minimize pain. I take it as a basic principle, the foundation of our existence. This movie goes, possibly, even deeper (I haven’t stopped thinking, you understand). It’s like I’ve said it is morally imperative to make all pictures as blue as possible while removing as much red as possible. Dysart tells me to look at the damn picture! Look! This is the picture he made for himself.
Existentialism, though, is really only good in pictures. When the pictures start to move, looking isn’t really enough, is it.
Everyone involved in this movie did a spectacular job. 1977 was a pretty good year for movies, but I’m going to assume it’s ten times better than The Turning Point (1977), and therefore a crime that it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Burton and Firth were nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively. While I love The Goodbye Girl (1977) and Richard Dreyfuss in it, Burton was phenomenal. I am partial to a broken down character and Burton played it so vulnerable and broken that I may have to reverse my position on actors becoming raging alcoholics. I also like Jason Robards (though I didn’t see Julia (1977) to judge his performance), but I don’t think Robards rode a horse bareback without a stitch on screaming out his lines with mounting heat and passion. Crazy can be easy, but there’s no cop-out in this movie.
As an aside, I wonder how long it takes, when filming a movie, before you stop caring that you aren’t wearing any clothes–however long it is, Firth gets the opportunity to reach it.
The writing is also a phenomenon. Peter Shaffer wrote the play and the screenplay upon which it was based. It isn’t a guarantee that a play translates to film–and I guess it’s still in question whether Equus really does to all parties–but, for me, this one does (with the aide of Burton’s brilliant performance).
The directing, I think, is probably the weakest link. Since it’s Sidney Lumet in the director chair, that should say quite a lot about how excellent this movie is. The problem with the direction, to my view, is that he doesn’t seem to think that you can monologue without being dramatically in the dark or the subject of an extreme close-up. Things were going so brilliantly, I didn’t mind so much, but if things weren’t going so well I might have scoffed resoundingly.
This movie is a masterpiece of acting and writing.