The Horse Whisperer

Friday May 15, 1998

     Reverence is a wonderful quality, but, as the Bible says, for every thing there is a season, and "The Horse Whisperer" is not the kind of project you want to be getting too worshipful about.
     It's true that the novel by Nicholas Evans has been translated into 36 languages and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. But at its core "Horse Whisperer" is a piece of romantic pulp whose spirit is best captured by the breathless paperback blurb: "A child wounded in body and spirit, a horse driven mad by pain, a woman fighting to save them both and the man who is their only hope. . . . " You get the idea.
     Robert Redford, who for the first time stars in a movie he's also directed, has taken this soap opera material and treated it like something inscribed on yak vellum by the Dalai Lama. While it's almost unheard of for critics to complain that a movie has been made with too much sensitivity, too much care, that's the situation here.
     One result of "The Horse Whisperer" being too fussed over is that its running time is an excessive two hours and 44 minutes. Redford and company were so entranced by their own work they didn't realize what a long slog they turned out. The film is set in Montana, and by the time it's over you feel like you've walked there.
     Having said all this, it should be added that there is a considerable amount of impressive work here. Redford gives himself some appealing movie star moments; he's smartly selected his co-stars, including young Scarlett Johansson from the indie success "Manny and Lo" and New York stage icon Cherry Jones, and, as photographed by Robert Richardson (who works most often with Oliver Stone) Montana has never looked lovelier.
     Moreover, if it hadn't been imprisoned by respect, "Horse Whisperer" is just the kind of heart-tugging story that could make an involving film. And, as its clean and direct opening sequences unfold, you think it just might.
     Young Grace MacLean (Johansson) is first seen at her family's country home, a 14-year-old getting up so early to ride with her best friend on a snowy morning that lawyer father Robert (Sam Neill) is still asleep.
     Scenes of the girl saddling her horse, Pilgrim, and heading off are intercut with shots of Grace's hard-driving mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a Manhattan magazine editor whose job running a Vanity Fair knockoff called Cover is all-consuming.
     High-strung, impatient, used to giving orders and getting her way, Annie just about snaps when she's told about something we are shown via a superbly executed piece of special-effects work. A terrible accident has killed Grace's friend, caused Grace to lose part of her leg and put Pilgrim in such horrid shape that vet Liz Hammond (Jones) says she's "never seen an animal with these injuries still breathing."
     Seemingly shaky to begin with, the MacLeans' marriage is sorely stressed by having to contend with a daughter traumatized and a mad horse that Annie refuses to have put down despite being told that the animal is beyond help.
     A bear for research, Annie discovers the existence of a class of horse trainers called "whisperers," savants who "could see into the creature's soul and soothe the wounds they found there." Against reason and without the slightest encouragement from anyone, Annie packs Grace into the car, shoehorns Pilgrim into a trailer and sets out for a Montana cattle ranch called the Double Divide, the home of Tom Booker (Redford), the whisperer's whisperer.
     Reluctantly at first, and only after Grace gruffly agrees to be part of the process, Tom starts to work with Pilgrim. Unlike the novel, which provides detailed explanations of what the whisperer does and why he's doing it, the movie frustratingly chooses to show but not tell, leaving the audience to figure out the specifics. This provides Redford with strong moments of star charisma, but it also gives some of his scenes with Pilgrim the air of a staring battle with a surly studio executive.
     Given that he believes what he does is "helping horses with people problems," Tom Booker naturally turns out to be a therapist in chaps and jeans. Though he is older than the 46-year-old Booker of the novel, Utah-based Redford is comfortable and convincing around horses and looks awfully good wearing his custom-tailored western wear.
     Still, Redford has too sophisticated a presence for his character's determinedly folksy persona to be convincing.
     Scott Thomas, usually the most reliable of actresses, is similarly uninvolving. In part it's the schematic nature of her role, the way she turns on a dime from obsessed career woman to mellow cowgirl. It's also because the charismatic attraction that is supposed to exist between Annie and Tom is rarely visible on screen.
     Screenwriters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese have done what they could with Evans' novel, but they are often caught trying to invest emotions in scenes that aren't able to hold them. When Tom and Annie kiss, you wish they wouldn't; it's like watching the consummation of an arranged marriage. In that context, Redford's decision to eliminate the book's sexual component was perhaps a wise idea.
     That lack of identifiable passion is "The Horse Whisperer's" most vexing problem. Redford directs everything smoothly but from a distance, with too few natural moments. This kind of story needs to be more vital, to capture audiences by force and make them believe. Redford's careful, respectful style can do a lot, but that is not within its powers.


The Horse Whisperer, 1998. PG-13 for a disturbing accident scene. A Wildwood Enterprises production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Robert Redford. Producers Robert Redford, Patrick Markey. Screenplay by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Nicholas Evans. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editors Tom Rolf, Freeman Davies Jr., Hank Corwin. Costumes Judy L. Ruskin. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Jon Hutman. Art director W. Steven Graham. Set decorators Hilton Rosemarin, Gretchen Rau. Running time: 2 hours, 44 minutes. Robert Redford as Tom Booker. Kristin Scott Thomas as Annie MacLean. Sam Neill as Robert MacLean. Dianne Wiest as Diane Booker. Scarlett Johansson as Grace MacLean.

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