By Daniel Barnes
Equus was adapted from a Tony Award-winning play by Peter Shaffer, at a seemingly perfect time for director Sidney Lumet to shepherd a prestige production to the screen. A workhorse since his TV days in the early 1950s, the economic limitations and concomitant artistic freedom of New Hollywood had been particularly kind to Lumet, and in 1977 he was coming off the Oscar-nominated one-two punches of 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. But give him a lot less and you got a lot less, and 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 that is mostly made of horse you-know-what, and 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, and comes to find that the boy’s horse worship is more sexual and fanatical in nature than first realized.
Eventually, the horse love is 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 off the horse. 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, and thanks to an emasculated Dad and a Bible-thumping Mom (Colin Blakely and Joan Plowright, both very good), it also became a form of pagan worship. Direct lines are clumsily drawn between cause and effect in Alan’s life, and while the film is 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 film’s stage origins, Martin narrates his most naked and self-lashing thoughts directly to the camera in florid Shakespearean monologues. It’s a tactic that probably should not work, but it mostly comes across, no doubt boosted by Lumet’s almost delusional belief that none of what you’re seeing as it 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.
Mike Dub said in last week’s Psychotherapy on Film Festival intro that psychotherapist movies generally fall into one of three categories – 1) institution movies; 2) quasi-detective movies; 3) psychotherapist-as-sicko movies (the last one usually taking the form of a “psychological thriller”, or if made in the 1990s, an “erotic thriller”). That observation is particularly enlightening when discussing Equus, since the film opens as an institution movie, gradually shifts into a quasi-detective movie (with Martin entering private property without legal jurisdiction and demanding answers to invasive questions), and ends up as a prime example of the psychotherapist-as-sicko subgenre. 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 our festival opener The Three Faces of Eve, and 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 is given the expertise of Freud and the moral authority of Santa Claus. Cobb’s character has no emotional involvement with Joanne Woodward other than concern for her mental well-being, but 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 ultimately 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 outsiders scramble to prevail at an inside game, and smug satisfaction rides 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.