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The Horse Whisperer

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Sam Neill, Scarlet Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Catherine Bosworth, Jeanette Nolan

Review by MrBrown
1½ stars out of 4

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a sucker for a good romantic weepie. Pop 1996's The Bridges of Madison County into the VCR, and by the time a rainsoaked Clint Eastwood casts a final heartbroken gaze at Meryl Streep, in all likelihood you'll find me a blubbering mess (go ahead and laugh). Not surprisingly, the long-delayed The Horse Whisperer is being positioned as this year's Bridges: it also boasts a high-profile director-star (here, Robert Redford), and it, too, is based on a bestselling love story by a first-time author (Nicholas Evans in this case). But only true suckers will fall for this overlong, slow, and self-indulgent bore, which is not only short on tears, but romance as well.

Never mind that it takes a hard-to-swallow plot contrivance to get the ball rolling. A violent horseriding accident severely injures 14-year-old Grace McLean (Scarlett Johansson, in a role originally intended for Natalie Portman) and kills her best friend Judith (Catherine Bosworth). Also shaken up in the accident is Grace's beloved horse Pilgrim. Although everyone says the best treatment for Pilgrim is a bullet, Grace's ballsy magazine editor mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) throws all caution and good advice to the wind and takes Grace, who now wears a prosthesis where her amputated right leg used to be, and Pilgrim on a road trip to Montana to meet one Tom Booker (Redford). Tom is a "horse whisperer," who specializes in treating "horses with people problems"--a category under which the once-gentle, now-irritable Pilgrim clearly falls.

It takes well over an hour before the inevitable "romance" between uptight Annie and laidback Tom begins. I place the term in quotes because what develops only qualifies under the vaguest, most academic definition. Tom and Annie go horseback riding once, and suddenly they long for each other--or rather, Annie longs for Tom, because Redford's stiff performance offers no convincing insight into what Tom feels. Redford had once vowed to never direct himself in a film; based on his wooden work here, he should have held to that promise. Scott Thomas is a proven master at conveying soul-aching longing (witness The English Patient) but she is at the mercy of Redford (the actor and director) and scripters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravanese (the latter of whom penned the terrific Bridges script). I couldn't feel for Annie since I couldn't understand why she would prefer Tom over her straight-arrow but generally understanding husband Robert (Sam Neill); her motivation is also sketchily developed, and as such the forbidden "love" feels like a scripted development and not a natural one.

Not that Redford seems terribly concerned with the romance, which is supposed to drive this story and serve as the emotional hook. Redford appears more content with crafting a valentine to the equine--and to his own virility. The Horse Whisperer is dominated by two images: horses running wild and free and Tom, twirling his lasso in slow motion. By the time Tom is exerting his cool yet caring authority over other ranch animals (in slow motion, of course), the point is abundantly clear--Tom is one strapping cowpoke. But Redford insists on drilling this point into the audience's heads over and over and over again, at the clear expense of the romance. I'd say that three-fourths of the film's bloated two-hour-and-forty-four minute running time is devoted to Tom and the horses, with a fourth of that remaining fourth devoted to the supposed "passion" between Tom and Annie: They indulge in a couple of stolen kisses (during a most incomprehensible doozy of an exchange--Annie: "I want to know something." Kiss. Tom: "Are you sure?" Kiss. Annie: "I have to go." What the--?!); they share a romantic barroom dance; she cries--that's it. Oh, lest I forget Tom's oh-so-heartwrenching declaration of love, delivered by Redford with all the expressiveness of a brick: "I didn't plan on loving you. But I do." Really? Could have fooled me...

The Horse Whisperer is not without its virtues. Robert Richardson's photography captures the Montana landscapes in all their breathtaking majesty; Thomas Newman's score is lilting and evocative; Johansson is terrific, creating the sole character that makes any connection with the audience; and the opening accident scene has a disturbing intensity. But the scant good lies at the periphery of a deep, gaping void. The handsomely produced Horse Whisperer is not the flat-out cinematic catastrophe that another recent actor-director effort, Kevin Costner's notorious The Postman, was, but for swoony fans of movie love stories, this uninteresting, uninvolving viewing chore might as well be. There won't be a damp eye in the house.

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