The Horse Whisperer” was often compared to a previous publishing phenomenon, “The Bridges of Madison County,” when it hit the bestseller lists in 1995. And just as Clint Eastwood significantly upgraded Robert James Waller’s treacly tome as a film, so has Robert Redford made an exquisitely crafted, morally and thematically mature picture out of Nicholas Evans’ schematic melodrama about a modern cowboy who brings about the physical and spiritual regeneration of a teenage girl and her horse after they suffer crippling injuries. Audience response to this emotionally powerful work should be strong, particularly among women, spelling excellent mainstream B.O. prospects for this presold title with a durable star at the top of a fine cast. However, there are certain clouds on the horizon that could prevent it from realizing its theoretical full commercial potential, most notably its near-three-hour running time and an elimination of the book’s sexual element that, while artistically justifiable, may perplex and frustrate the novel’s fans.
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Directing himself for the first time, Redford has lavished his usual meticulous care on popular material that comes alive on the screen in ways that it never could on the page, most importantly due to the indelible impressions made by the thesps, horses and spectacular Montana settings. At the same time, nearly all the corn, sentimentality and two-bit symbolism of the book has been removed by Redford and scenarists Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese (the latter, not coincidentally, adapted “Madison County”) and replaced by unusually serious and adult considerations of such subjects as trust, healing, fidelity and the unfairness of life.
Enhanced by some truly striking and deftly subjective visuals, as well as an eerie mix of music and sound effects, opening reels pack an unexpected, sobering power. Fourteen-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) and her best friend Judith head out for a winter morning horseback ride in upstate New York. Giddily chattering away, the girls suddenly find their steeds losing their footing on the snow and ice, and as they slide across a roadway they are hit by a jackknifing truck, with ghastly results: Judith and her horse are killed, while Grace must have her right leg amputated and her horse, Pilgrim, though miraculously still alive, seems traumatized beyond salvation.
In the throes of dealing with her daughter’s calamity, high-powered and sophisticated magazine editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) somehow decides not to have Pilgrim put down. Vaguely intuiting that her daughter’s recovery might be tied to that of Pilgrim’s, Annie learns of a man who reputedly has a special gift with horses, a way of training them and returning them to normal after accidents or ill treatment from humans. Refusing to take no for an answer, Annie, with considerable difficulty, packs Grace in the car and Pilgrim in a trailer and heads for Montana, where the healer man lives.
This half-hour of set-up for the story’s principal action in fact contains some of the most dramatically potent scenes in the entire picture. Shooting in the standard 1.85 format, Redford displays great intensity and concentration in his direction, abetted by an agile shorthand in the service of character revelation that deftly skirts any obvious exposition. Without it being spelled out, the contours of Annie’s politely functional marriage to lawyer Robert (Sam Neill) become just clear enough, as does her impulse to try to control any situation, a trait that still cannot force her now embittered, guilt-ridden daughter to even talk to her during the long trip west.
Quietly but magnificently expanding into widescreen upon hitting the wide open spaces, pic simultaneously takes its first deep breaths and relaxes a bit as Tom Booker (Redford) is persuaded to see what he can do with Pilgrim. As someone points out, Tom is not the sort of man who does anything he doesn’t feel like doing.
But there is enough will in Annie, and urgent need in Grace and Pilgrim, to inspire the interest of this handsome, self-contained and self-sufficient man, who lives the old-fashioned ranching life with his younger brother Frank (Chris Cooper), the latter’s wife Diane (Dianne Wiest) and their kids.
From the moment he makes his long-delayed entrance, it is apparent that Redford has no intention of playing into cliched notions of a dirt-kicking, aw-shucksing, man-of-few-words cowboy. To the contrary, he’s a thoughtful, thoroughly modern figure who, his confidence notwithstanding, has lived in the big city, experienced disappointments, notably in a failed marriage, and has had to make compromises and concessions. He also has a keen sense of character and some intuition, which prove invaluable in his dealings with horses as well as people.
As Tom works to bring the horse around — in one fine, extended sequence he waits all day for the runaway Pilgrim to return to him rather than chasing the animal down — Grace gradually comes back to life, prompted by Tom’s imposition of responsibilities and expectations. Self-pity and self-indulgence have no place on the range, although illusions of romance finally intrude: Over the long , indefinite course of the summer, during which Annie loses her magazine job in New York, she and Tom begin imagining that they’re falling in love.
During some relative dramatic down time in which dinners, a cattle roundup barbecue and a country dance follow upon one another in succession, and as the picture passes the two-hour point, readers of the book might legitimately begin to wonder when the fated, Madison Countyish affair between the fortyish married woman and older loner man is ever going to kick in. In the expected passionate sense, it never does; despite looks of longing, the occasional caress and one nocturnal kissing scene, the romance remains chaste. With Annie’s husband having just arrived for an unannounced visit, Tom does the right thing in his role as healer by stoically refusing to indulge his desire and cause the eager Annie to become an adulteress. In this, perhaps, lies the MacLean family’s chance to grow together again.
This rerouting of the novel from the hay to the moral high ground endows the film with a maturity and refinement not present in the book, but also reduces the dramatic charge of the story’s final stretch. It’s almost unique in modern films for the central couple in a romance not to bed down at least once (even “Titanic” managed that, against considerable odds); when Annie plaintively asks, “Tom, can we have one last ride?” the hero here takes her literally and saddles up a horse. Public reaction to this rigorous moralism will be interesting to gauge. Happily, the novel’s far-fetched climactic melodrama has been jettisoned entirely.
Although “The Horse Whisperer” maintains high interest throughout by virtue of its intelligence, absorbing story, physical beauty, sharp insights and frequent wry humor, it does reach the point of diminishing returns; two-and-a-half hours would seem to have been the maximum proper length for the material as approached.
Another, perhaps insurmountable shortcoming is that, no matter the skill and force with which the healing scenes are staged, it remains mysterious exactly what the title character is able to do or express that makes him able to communicate so magically with horses, other than to control himself with superhuman patience.
Playing an idealized, albeit smoke-free Marlboro man would hardly appear to be a stretch for Redford; even on paper, Tom Booker seems tailor-made for the actor, and he steps into the role as into a pair of well-worn boots. Scott Thomas is brittle, alert and increasingly radiant as the woman who slowly opens to Tom’s love and wisdom, while Neill, a sideline player most of the way, excels in one emotionally blunt husband-wife exchange. Johansson, previously seen in the indie “Manny and Lo,” convincingly conveys the awkwardness of her age and the inner pain of a carefree girl suddenly laid low by horrible happenstance.
Pic possess gorgeous physical trappings. In addition to the differing visual frames that contrast the confining constraints of the preliminary eastern settings to the wider possibilities represented by the western environs, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is constantly inventive, expressive of the situations at hand and wonderfully evocative of the Big Sky country. Jon Hutman’s production design and the astute selection of locations bring the assorted characters’ environments importantly to bear on the story, and Thomas Newman’s score, supplemented by numerous well-chosen country tunes, is supple and full of unexpected flavors.