The lives of a disparate group of contestants intertwine in an inhumanely grueling dance marathon.
“In Sydney Pollack’s thoroughly realist film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), Jane Fonda and her partner Michael Sarrazin take part in a Depression-era marathon dance contest, pushing themselves to dance for days out of desperation for a cash prize. The result is muted, wilted shuffling that gives way to exhaustion and collapse. Men may be just as likely to die on the dancefloor, but it’s women who bear the tragedy – they surrender to breakdown or self-harm in Pollack’s depiction of this strange historical moment. The pain and exploitation of their public ordeal is a cutting indictment of a rigged game. That it’s Jane Fonda’s failed actress Gloria who sees this with the most brutal clarity seems like no accident.”
“Director Sydney Pollack has built a ballroom and filled it with characters. They come from nowhere, really; Michael Sarrazin is photographed as if he has walked into the ballroom directly from the sea. The characters seem to have no histories, no alternate lives; they exist only within the walls of the ballroom and during the ticking of the official clock. Pollack has simplified the universe. He has got everything in life boiled down to this silly contest; and what he tells us has more to do with lives than contests. […]
The characters are comedians trapped in tragic roles. They signed up for the three square meals a day and the crack at the $1,500 prize, and they can stop after all whenever they want to. But somehow they can't stop, and as the hundreds and thousands of hours of weariness and futility begin to accumulate, the great dance marathon begins to look more and more like life.”