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
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
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott