The Horse Whisperer
Director: Robert Redford. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Neill, Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ty Hillman, Cherry Jones. Screenplay: Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese (based on the novel by Nicholas Evans).

"Horse whispering" is still not a concept I understand very well even after watching Robert Redford's adaptation of Nicholas Evans' best-selling novel. I have a vague sense that the whisperer acts as a sort of shaman, speaking in hushed tones, moving as slowly and quietly as possible, and avoiding any gestures or behaviors that could disturb or provoke the horse in any conceivable way. If that assessment is fair, then Redford appears to be a devout practitioner of the craft not only in his role as Tom Booker, soother of equines, but in his capacity as director of this project—which is to say that The Horse Whisperer is as slow, soothing, undaring, and nebulous as the regimen it describes.

The film begins promisingly with a haunting montage in which Grace Maclean (Scarlett Johansson), an adolescent girl as the greatest horse-worshippers are, takes an easy sunrise trot through the winter woods with her best friend. Their respective animals have trouble climbing a steep, ice-covered hill, and suddenly a succession of terrifying mishaps has both girls and both horses sprawled in a heap on a snow-covered highway, where an oncoming tractor-trailer kills Grace's friend, severely injures her right leg, and causes enough injury to Pilgrim, Grace's horse, that he bucks around wildly and takes on a permanent state of anxiety whenever anything, human or object, comes anywhere near him.

Grace's mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets a phone call reporting her daughter's trauma on her portable cell-phone in her swank publishing office; she runs to the hospital where her husband Robert (Sam Neill) informs her that Grace's leg has already been amputated below the knee. Through the introductory scenes in her magazine office, her demeanor with the hospital staff, and Robert's edgy distance from her, we immediately perceive that Annie is a class-A control-freak, the kind of person who can least tolerate the helplessness of a hospital waiting room or the intrusion of such awful accidents into her stable, if slightly chilly, private world.

Meanwhile, Grace and Pilgrim emerge from their respective operations with ungainly physical scars and even more debilitating psychic burdens. Grace refuses her parents' efforts to nurture her back into good spirits and concludes almost immediately that no one will ever look past her new handicap long enough to care about her personality; thus, in Johansson's admirably off-putting performance, she essentially decides not to have a personality, substituting instead a barrage of criticisms, lamentations, and sardonic comments that don't make her recovery, or her parents', any easier. Her sourness recalls that of Jude Law's crippled athlete in last year's Gattaca, but unlike that tough, high-minded movie, The Horse Whisperer is mainly interested in using its characters' wounds and scars as quick, teary excuses to "heal" them: with panoramic sunsets, with buttery close-ups, with obligatory love interests.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. While Grace is busy transforming herself into a spitting cobra, Pilgrim has grown so unruly that he is isolated in the dark back end of his stable. The manager of the animals insists that Pilgrim should be put down, but Annie refuses. Starting from this untenable situation, Redford and script writers Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County) expose the alternate perceptions and blindnesses of all three of the Macleans. Robert sees that his daughter needs a careful balance of affection and freedom to recover, but he doesn't understand anything about the deep connection she feels to Pilgrim. Grace, of course, considers the horse almost as a spiritual twin, and sees how their injuries, in mind and body, essentially mirrror one another; she grasps that Pilgrim should not have to live his life in such conditions, but is too depressed and cynical about her own loss, and perhaps too romantic in her identification with the horse, that she decides she may as well be put to sleep as well. For her part, Annie perceives both the strength of the relationship between Grace and Pilgrim and the imminent collapse of Grace's will to live, but she cannot set aside her own need to manage things long enough to let their recoveries transpire at the proper pace.

Most of these scenes are taut and effective, but once Annie calls Tom Booker long-distance in Montana to ask for help restoring Pilgrim (and, by extension she hopes, her daughter) to health, the movie begins a long decline into listlessness and botched formulas that risk forfeiting our interest altogether. I have never found Redford's onscreen presence to be particularly powerful, though his love for the quiet and the open space of Big Sky country allows him to relate easily to Tom Booker and contribute a perfectly serviceable if unremarkable performance. Unfortunately, his passion for the Montana scenery—almost a spiritual exaltation of the place and its people—becomes such a primary concern that the dramas between the characters become muted and confused. Robert Richardson, the brilliant cinematographer behind Oliver Stone's kaleidoscopic epics (JFK, Nixon), is forced here to deliver the kind of fulsome, drooling, glamour-shot photography that looks fantastic but contributes nothing artistically to the film.

In fact, The Horse Whisperer's biggest problem is its complete lack of any particular point of view: in the narrative, in the cinematography, you name it. A starry-eyed advocacy for the Upper Plains' "simpler life" is not a potent enough perspective to sustain a 160-minute film, though The Horse Whisperer certainly has no business being that long anyway. (The conspicuous over-length of the picture struck me as a sort of dare from Redford to the audience to actually jettison their worldly concerns and accept the slower rhythms of life he forces upon his characters.) The scenes in which Pilgrim is soothed by Redford are often shot in extreme long-shot, which again makes room for some purple mountains' majesty, but leaves us almost entirely clueless as to what is transpiring between man and horse. We need to have a better understanding of this process, because the film so obviously wants us to analogize Tom Booker's nurturing of Pilgrim with the gradual way in which he loosens up and woos Annie, whose husband stayed behind when she and her daughter took the cross-country trek.

If Booker is taming the horse through some mystical cross-species therapy, do we really want to make the jump that a similar process can make Annie drop her jet-set lifestyle and love this quiet rancher? Is the feat of calming and soothing her really enough to make her love him, or for that matter, make him love her, since the two seem like such complete opposites of personality and ideology? Scott Thomas belongs in that small, invaluable group of actors (Joan Allen, Maggie Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson also come to mind) who are not only always convincing as performers, but act with such confidence and eloquence that they add an air of distinction to whatever project they've signed on to. Even that quality, however, cannot make us believe the strained and ostensibly passionate affair that grows between her Annie and Redford's Tom. Scenes of campfire story-telling and tense, silent slow-dancing mirror scenes from her starring role in The English Patient so exactly that they only contrast the lack of conviction in this picture with the wild storms of emotion that circulated throughout Minghella's epic.

The difficult, bruised relationship between Scott Thomas and Johansson remains compelling throughout The Horse Whisperer, and the ways in which these two unhappy women pull each other, or try to, out of their mutual depressions seemed far more real and more magical to me than the wispy portraits of Robert Redford sitting in a field staring at a horse. I was also interested in Tom's brother-in-law Frank (Chris Cooper) and his wife Diane (Dianne Wiest), a couple for whom Tom is essentially a third spouse and a fundamental assistant in the duties of the household and the ranch. Unfortunately, despite the presence of two of our finest character actors, Roth and LaGravenese's script has little interest in Frank and Diane besides the structural needs for 1) a place for Tom and eventually Annie to live, and 2) a model of a rural family to contrast with the incommunicative, privately pained Macleans.

Wiest at least has a short exchange by a riverside with Scott Thomas that bristles with latent antagonism and defensiveness, but the actresses' perfect navigation of that scene only reminds us of how much fuller a picture The Horse Whisperer might have been if it stopped looking toward the sky and mountains every once in a while and actually paid serious, unmanipulated attention to the people it is ostensibly about. Nothing in this film, save perhaps Johansson's risky interpretation of Grace, should offend or upset anyone, which is probably a virtue in the eyes of its big-hearted director and in those of its studio, hoping for a broadly-appealing summertime box-office champ. That makes The Horse Whisperer a fairly digestible product, but especially for such a long meal it certainly isn't very filling. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Original Song: "A Soft Place to Fall"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Robert Redford

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