The Horse Whisperer
Screenplay : Richard LaGravenese and Eric Roth (based on the novel by Nicholas Evans)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Robert Redford (Tom Booker), Kristin Scott Thomas (Annie MacLean), Sam Neill (Robert MacLean), Scarlett Johansson (Grace MacLean), Dianne Wiest (Diane Booker), Chris Cooper (Frank Booker), Cherry Jones (Liz Hammond)
Robert Redford is very good at playing characters who have incredible, God-given gifts, but are able to act like ordinary people. In "The Natural" (1984), he played the fallen angelic character of Roy Hobbs, the baseball player who was destined to be "the best there ever was," but still acted like a humble farm boy. In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), he was the most dangerous shot in the West, yet he came off like a nothing more than a boyishly good-looking charmer. Even in "Indecent Proposal" (1993), where he played a man who was so good at making money that he believed he could buy love, Redford was still able to exude an aura of shy decency, especially when reciting a tale of lost love.
In his latest film, "The Horse Whisperer," based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans, Redford again plays such a character. Redford also directed the film although he swore up and down that he would never direct himself in a movie -- I suppose the character of Tom Booker, a man who has the amazing gift of understanding and somehow communicating with horses, was just too good to pass up. Despite his enormous and rare gift when it comes to training troubled horses (a magazine article coins the phrase "horse whisperer" to describe his uncanny talent), Booker sees himself as an everyday cattle rancher whose greatest fear is growing old and no longer having a purpose in life.
Booker's talents are taxed into service by Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), a New York magazine editor whose daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), was recently in a horrible accident. The accident, which is filmed with gut-wrenching horror, happens when Grace and her best friend are out riding horses -- an eighteen-wheeler kills Grace's friend, severely wounds and traumatizes Grace's horse, Pilgrim, and causes Grace to lose part of her right leg.
Annie believes that if Pilgrim can be healed, Grace will be healed as well, which leads her to Booker. At first, she tries to get Booker to come to New York to see the horse, but that doesn't work. Instead, she packs up Grace and Pilgrim, leaves her husband, Robert (Sam Neill) behind, and heads for the rolling hills of Montana where Booker runs a ranch with his brother, Frank (Chris Cooper), and his sister-in-law, Diane (Dianne Wiest).
In many ways, the film is like a journey, both literally and symbolically. The move out West has always been a great American tradition of renewal, and it's hard not to see Annie and Grace's leaving Manhattan for Montana as a variation on the classic theme of city vs. country. In "The Horse Whisperer," country is clearly the victor. The city is characterized by claustrophobia and unhappiness, and it is not until the characters arrive in the wide-open spaces of Montana that Grace's anger at being physically and emotionally crippled begins to dissipate, Annie's controlling nature begins to relax, and Pilgrim once again learns to trust people.
Redford is just as in love with the grand Montana country in this film as he was when he directed "A River Runs Through It" six years ago. In many ways, "The Horse Whisperer" comes from the same poetic vein as "River," and the movie could probably be a good fifteen minutes shorter if Redford had decided to spend less camera-time on the grass and mountains. But then, that would ruin the magic.
Much of the film's photography is truly elegant, and it creates a palpable sense of the sheer expansiveness of the land. To further emphasize this, Redford and cinematographer Robert Richardson ("Natural Born Killers," "Platoon") cheated a bit by shooting the beginning of the film -- which takes place in New York -- with mostly cold, harsh bluish filters and a more squarish 1.85:1 aspect ratio; when the action shifts to Montana, Richardson switches to soft-focus and natural lighting, and the screen widens to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
In terms of the story itself, "The Horse Whisperer" gives us the same romanticized view of adultery found in David Lean's "A Brief Encounter" (1945) and Clint Eastwood's 1995 adaptation of Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" (Richard LaGravenese, co-screenwriter here also adapted "Bridges"). Although "The Horse Whisperer" has a strong romantic sensibility, I still find something oddly troubling about this kind of story. It seems to me that there should be some sympathy for the husband who's being left behind for this brief, heart-sweeping affair, but there rarely is.
In "The Horse Whisperer," the thankless role of being the fuddy-duddy husband falls to Sam Neill. He plays the character as a decent, hard-working man who is a good husband and father; his only failure is that he loves his wife more than she loves him. He is at risk of losing Annie to Booker not because he did anything to drive her away, but simply because he happens to be a normal, fairly uninspiring man.
There is one scene that is particularly telling of how the movie feels about each character. It shows Booker and Robert going into a horse pen -- Booker is dressed like a classic cowboy with hat and all, while Robert looks somewhat frumpy and out-of-place in a baseball cap. As they enter the pen, Booker assuredly swings over the fence, while Robert hesitates, then opens the gate and, in a goofy moment, forgets to close it behind him. It's a small scene, but it clearly demonstrates the movie's thorough love of the Booker character for his romantic roughness. After all, Booker represents everything good about the city while Robert represents everything banal and unnatural about it.
The best scenes in "The Horse Whisperer" tend to involve not the building romance between Booker and Annie, but rather the healing process of Grace and her horse. Although Booker's horse-training methods are mythical and unrealistic, the scenes with him and Pilgrim are strangely mesmerizing. These are paralleled by the scenes between him and Grace, some of which are humorous, and all of which are tender and true. At some point, I wished the movie would drop the whole romance angle and focus on Grace more.
Nevertheless, Redford is obviously a romantic at heart, and he brings a light touch to the erotic moments in the film. There are no dramatic sex scenes, but there is a moving scene when he and Scott Thomas are slow-dancing, always moving ever closer together, that is far more erotic than any scene of sweaty bodies grinding together. Although the movie is longer than it should be and is essentially a melodramatic tearjerker with an unsatisfying conclusion that guarantees unhappiness for just about every character, there are still moments like that which make "The Horse Whisperer" worth the price of admission.
©1998 James Kendrick