The Horse Whisperer, the latest film from Robert Redford and the first of his directorial efforts in which he also stars, could almost serve as a compendium of Redford's best and worst tendencies. It features his eye for gorgeous, pictorial vistas, his straightforward narrative approach and, most important, his understanding of actors. Yet its shortcomings keep it from the level of Quiz Show, still by far his best piece of filmmaking.
Following a brief dream sequence, the film shows upper-crust adolescent Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) preparing to go for a ride on Pilgrim, her beloved horse. But everything is too idyllic; it's clear that something bad is going to happen, and indeed it does. In a freak accident, both horse and rider are horribly injured.
The lower half of Grace's right leg needs to be amputated, and Pilgrim is way past the normal threshold for euthanasia. Against all medical opinion, however, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Grace's strong-willed mother, refuses to have the horse put down without Grace's consent.
Grace's psychological recuperation from her surgery is far from smooth. Robert (Sam Neill), her lawyer father, tends to coddle her, while the far more brittle Annie, a high-powered magazine editor, seems to have taken the notion of tough love to heart.
When Grace finally goes to visit Pilgrim, she is further traumatized by his psychological and physical disfigurement. (The sheer insanity of Annie and Robert taking her to the stable without first warning her about the horse's condition is acknowledged in the dialogue but never really explained.)
The unflappable Annie simply directs the resources of her magazine staff to the task of researching equine rehabilitation. When she sees a picture of grizzled, handsome Tom Booker (Redford)--a so-called horse whisperer--she inexplicably fixes on him as her one salvation. Over Booker's objections, Annie packs up Grace and Pilgrim and drives them to his isolated Montana ranch to enlist his aid in bringing Pilgrim around.
Sure enough, Annie and Tom are soon headed for some steamy clinches, even though the movie makes it look like a total surprise to Annie.
The Horse Whisperer basically combines the family psychodrama of Ordinary People, Redford's Oscar-winning directorial debut, with the middle-aged romance of The Bridges of Madison County, whose screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, also co-wrote Horse Whisperer.
"Middle-aged romance" may not be an entirely fair phrase here: July-November would be more accurate, since Redford is pretty much past the "middle" that Kristin Scott Thomas hasn't even reached yet. Like Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, the star has the ability to pack on the years without losing his romantic viability. Still, many people will find the age difference disconcerting.
But a bigger problem for the film derives from Redford's curious notion of his own image. After Quiz Show and Ordinary People, it's clear that the man is an intelligent director. But as a producer and a star, he's always shied away from portraying negative characters--or even characters with negative qualities. (He was replaced on The Verdict because he wanted to soften the hero's flaws to the point where his "redemption" would be meaningless.)
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If there's anything that grows cloying during The Horse Whisperer's leisurely two-hour-and-forty-five-minute expanse, it's the sheer wonderfulness of Tom Booker. Annie is often intolerable and irritating, Grace is troubled, and Robert just seems like a bit of a wimp. But Tom is Mr. Macho Self-Assurance, with a contemporary glaze of self-effacing male liberalism. The guy simply doesn't do anything even mildly wrong or unlikable or flawed in nearly three damned hours.
It's a curious contrast to the film's portrayal of Annie, who has a monopoly on bad traits (echoes of Ordinary People). At the same time, there's nothing new or provocative about her thorniness--compare, for example, Susan Sarandon's character in the imperfect but edgier Lorenzo's Oil.
Horse Whisperer may appeal to teenage girls with horse fetishes or to swoony Redford fans in need of a fantasy. But in the final accounting, it's nothing more than a very long movie about someone who, literally and figuratively, has to get back up on a horse.
The Horse Whisperer.
Written by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese; based on the novel by Nicholas Evans. Directed by Robert Redford. With Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Neill.