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David Thomson on Films: Should Horses Be Sacrificed For Art?

In every way it is regrettable—that three horses have died in the making of Luck over a period of twelve weeks; and that the slowly developing series is going to be cut off, not exactly in its prime, but with glimpses of that glow in the distance. No one writing a piece like this, or producing a television series, is going to be blunt enough to say, “Well, of course, you’re going to lose some horses, that’s part of racing.” The official figures report that at American tracks in the last ten years 5,000 horses have had to be put down because of injuries too extensive to be treated.

You may recall the name “Barbaro.” As a three-year-old he won the Kentucky Derby of 2006 and then two weeks later in the Preakness he broke three bones in his right hind leg. His owners did not give up on him. The horse had six operations and he lived another eight months before his laminitis (severe and feverish inflammation) was so bad that he was euthanized in January 2007. Does that sound like a movie? Well, Universal thought so, and a project to be called Gone Like the Wind was set in motion, though it seems to have been pulled up lame for the moment. 

Ironically, and perhaps to avert possible problems, Luck has as one of its subplots a sort of romance between Dustin Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein and Claire Lachay (Joan Allen), who looks after old, beat-up and forlorn horses. There are several problems to this relationship, but this is the most germane: the romantic scene between Ace and a horse he half-owns was far more beguiling than anything with Claire.

And here we come to a larger regret over Luck’s withdrawal. I wrote about the show when it opened (after all, it had David Milch and Michael Mann as co-executive producers). I found it hard to follow and harder to hear at first—very few concessions were made to the old idea that dialogue is information. There was no hint of where the show was going, and we do not have much training in that vagueness on television. But I persevered, along with some four million others. That is the total viewing figure HBO reports, including on-demand screenings, though the most recent episode was apparently down to half-a-million for the live showing on Sunday night. I have become more relaxed with its disconnected storylines. Above all, I have grown fond of the four deadbeat trackies whose Pick Six success prompts them to buy a horse. All they do it seems is live in adjoining motel rooms, eat fast food, whine and snarl at each other and live a life committed to horses, gambling and luck. The leader of this group, Marcus (Kevin Dunn), is dying, and he tolerates Renzo (Ritchie Coster) and Lonnie (Ian Hart), while he tries to steer Jerry (Jason Gedrick) away from playing poker at the casino. Jerry is the nearest the show has to a romantic male lead and he has just found a girl at the casino and had rather novel sex with her in his car.

These guys never speak to the world in which Ace is just out of prison and floating an artful double-cross scheme, which may be to open an Indian casino—or is it all a set up to get revenge on the very nasty Michael, played by Michael Gambon? In a recent episode Michael laid open the face of Ace’s assistant with a heavy glass ashtray. The assistant may be dead, and so far no audience group seems to have protested just because a character was brutalized in close-up. 

Then there’s Escalante (John Ortiz), a top trainer, who is a bit of a bastard and may be father to another, because he has got the track vet pregnant—she’s played by Jill Hennessy, and she has only a few moments, but they’re like old gold. And don’t forget Walter (Nick Nolte), a loner trainer or horse whisperer who is bringing on another colt and has been using an Irish jockey, Rosie (Kerry Condon), until she uses the whip on his horse. So he drops her and hires Ronnie instead (played by Gary Stevens, a real jockey, with a face that has lived with the strain of making the weight). But we know Ronnie is a wreck and a drug-taker, so we wonder who’ll ride Nolte’s horse in the big race—if a big race ever comes.

The third horse died as they were shooting the first episodes of a second series, but this assortment of gamblers could have hung together until they were bust—and you can see a lot of potential for breakdown. What unites most of the characters is that they adore the horses; they talk to them, they give them treats, and Ace slept outside his horse’s stall one night and was proud to be nuzzled awake. As Jonathan Swift and the painter George Stubbs knew, not to mention Lady Godiva and El Cid, a horse is a transcendent subject and a transporting vehicle. Milch and Mann seem to have known that in the end their loose, unruly show relied on the horses. So they shot their own race scenes—there is a race in every episode —rejecting stock footage and going for color, the sound of snorting, wild eyes in the starting stalls, and the vanity-free beauty of the horses, to say nothing of their speed or the agility of the jockeys. One tracking shot of Kerry Condon crouched in full gallop was among the sexiest shots of the year on TV. All right, it may not have been Ms. Condon riding; it may have been a sit-in. But the horse was real, and the horses have proved the realism of the show.

For the moment, Milch and Mann are making noises about carrying on, but any alternative venue is going to be hunted by guardians waiting for other horses to break down. Those qualms (all very well intended) will deprive us of the fascinating cases of human breakdown or salvation that seem to be in the offing. I’m going to miss the scruffy gang, and Escalante’s Latin Cagney act. I’ll even miss Michael Gambon and Dustin Hoffman. And I am sorry for the horses, and for every other animal regularly dispatched for our lifestyle and well-being, whether they like it or not. But that soft-heartedness wants to stop so much—fox-hunting, bullfighting, boxing, football, smoking, and roast lamb. Those things are all dangerous and suspect and exploitative—just like life, where such things as institutional fraud, international famine and slaughter, and ordinary human error run free.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.