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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

During one of "The Horse Whisperer's" most lyrical scenes, a horse panics and runs away. Tom Booker, assigned the task of calming the troubled animal, does not chase him. Instead, he walks into the field and waits. Minutes turn to hours as Tom continues to wait for the animal in silence. Finally, after waiting all day, Tom's patience is rewarded as the horse quiets and returns to him on its own accord. "The Horse Whisperer" is filled with understated moments like that. Poetic, dignified and deeply humane, the film is a rarity, a rich character-driven tale with brains, heart and integrity.

Based on Nicholas Evans' best-selling novel, the story focuses on 14-year- old Grace MacLean, emotionally and physically crippled following a tragic riding accident. Grace isn't the only traumatized party. Her beloved horse Pilgrim turns wild, and several handlers tell the family that the horribly wounded creature will never recover and should be "put down." But Grace's mother Annie, sensing that her daughter's recovery is somehow linked to the horse, refuses and seeks another solution. After reading an article about horse whisperers, people with an almost mystical ability for reaching troubled horses, she seeks out the legendary Tom Booker and asks for help. Ignoring his brusque refusal, Annie takes a leave of absence from her job as a high-powered New York magazine editor, packs up both horse and daughter and heads for Tom's Montana ranch.

Much like another print sensation, "The Bridges of Madison County," "The Horse Whisperer" was derided by some as mawkish and melodramatic. And, just as Clint Eastwood did with James Waller's book, Robert Redford has taken Evans' words and transformed them into a beautifully crafted film that draws a strong emotional reaction honestly, with well-drawn characters and intelligent dialogue.

"The Horse Whisperer" is a long movie, just under three hours, but the length is justifiable. As the story moves from Manhattan to Montana, Redford changes the rhythm, placing the audience in a setting where things move with a more deliberate, thoughtful pace. Although the Montana setting is idyllic, Redford doesn't take cheap shots at those who live in the city. Instead, he presents two approaches to navigating through life, contrasting those who push for quick answers with those who take the time to observe, listen and thing things through.

That's the secret behind a horse whisperer's "mystical" ability. Tom Booker, as played by director Redford, is a man whose magic comes from paying attention. He learns about Pilgrim by watching the horse and the people who love it. Along the way, he also learns what Grace needs, giving her space when she demands it and structure when she requires it. And, much to his surprise, he learns what Annie needs as well.

Stories about young people trying to recover from traumatic incidents are nothing new, of course. "Ordinary People," the first film Redford directed, dealt with a tortured youth and the strained relationship between him and his mother. Redford handles this sort of thing well because he doesn't take the easy route. There are no villains in "The Horse Whisperer." People make mistakes, but they learn from them. People are faced with difficult choices and they make reasoned decisions. Redford creates the kind of world that could be, if only all of us would try harder, care more and take responsibility for our own actions and the effect those actions might have on others. You don't see that in movies very often anymore.

The acting in"The Horse Whisperer" is as good as its script. The always dependable Dianne Wiest and Chris Cooper are strong as Tom's brother and sister-in-law, and Sam Neill is sturdy as Grace's father, shining in a beautifully written speech towards the end of the film. Scarlett Johansson strikes just the right notes as Grace, capturing the pain the young woman suffers without ever overplaying the angst. As Annie, "The English Patient's" Kristin Scott Thomas takes risks, displaying the abrasive, brittle side of her character along with her many sympathetic qualities.

Redford is excellent as Tom Booker. He could easily have made the character a noble icon, or overplayed the down-home, "Aw shucks" cowboy business. Instead, Redford creates an erudite, well-spoken man who has loved, lost and learned from the experience. It's an strong, nuanced, honest performance. About the only area where Redford cheats a little is in the lighting. Throughout the film, the sun mostly shines on Redford from the back or side, minimizing the wrinkles on the aging actor's face. Good for him! In a film as benign and forgiving as "The Horse Whisperer," it's only fair to forgive Redford for showing a little bit of vanity. He deserves it.

Copyright 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott

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