Horse Whisperer, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Low, gray clouds scud across the sky while the grass of a seemingly-endless plain ripples in response to the prompting of a spring breeze. Thunder rumbles in the distance. On another day, a bright sun gazes down on those same fields while cattle roam from horizon to horizon. The silhouette of a lone cowboy on horseback stands out against an evening skyline. Above these vistas, the Rocky Mountains tower like implacable guardians, seeing all. These are only some of the images from The Horse Whisperer, a film as rich in its visual presentation as it is in its emotional resonance.

As directed by veteran actor/film maker Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer is a powerful and moving tale of love and loss that eschews melodramatic manipulation in its pursuit of a simple, honest tale. I have not read the best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans upon which the movie is based, but if it's as good as (or better than) the motion picture adaptation, it's easy to understand its appeal. As a director, Redford has made some impressive films; this is among his best.

The Horse Whisperer opens peacefully enough, with two teenage girls leaving their houses in the early morning hours for a horseback ride. The sunrise is brilliant, and, as snow begins to fall later in the day, the fields and forest are turned into a winter wonderland of blues and silvers. Everything is picture perfect until tragedy strikes, brutally and without warning. One of the girls' mounts loses his footing on the icy ground and, suddenly, the two friends are in the path of a skidding 18-wheeler. One girl and her horse die. The other pair, Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), and her beloved steed, Pilgrim, are badly injured. Grace loses the lower half of one leg. Pilgrim is driven mad, and everyone advises that he be put to sleep.

Grace's parents, Annie and Robert MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas and Sam Neill), are ill- prepared to help their daughter cope with her physical disability and the mental scars of having seen her best friend run down by an out-of-control truck. Annie decides that Grace's recovery will be aided if she can find a way to heal Pilgrim (the film's only dubious contrivance). So, with her daughter and the horse in tow, Annie heads out to Montana, where a legendary "horse whisperer," Tom Booker (Robert Redford), lives and works on a ranch. After seeing Pilgrim, Tom agrees to try to help the horse, and so begins a long period of restoration for four souls: Pilgrim, Grace, Annie, and Tom.

Those of a romantic nature may focus on the understated relationship between Annie and Tom, but that's just one aspect of a story of great depth. The Horse Whisperer is about the healing power of love. Like Atom Egoyan's masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter, this film eloquently illustrates how difficult it is to recover from a life- altering trauma, and how the ripples from such an event can affect those who were not directly involved.

Everyone in this film has their own demons to wrestle with. Grace, who retreats into a sullen cocoon after the accident, is raw on the inside, but won't let it out. She resents her mother's emotional distance and is frightened that the loss of her leg makes her useless and will doom her to a life alone. ("Nobody will want me like this!") Annie, who is used to being in charge, doesn't know how to cope with the situation, and, when she takes the time to examine her life, she recognizes how the pressures of her career have leeched away her humanity. Meanwhile, Tom, who is basically at peace with himself, begins to re-discover what it means to love, something he had lost when his wife left him.

There is an Oscar-caliber performance in The Horse Whisperer, but it isn't given by Redford, Scott-Thomas, or Neill. Instead, it's the work of young Scarlett Johansson, who has already proven her talent with a remarkable debut in Manny & Lo. As Grace, Johansson makes a case to be placed alongside Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman as one of the best actresses of her generation. She does everything necessary to make Grace a living and vital character, and, like all good performers, much of her acting comes through subtle expression changes and body language. Johansson is so effective, in fact, that Grace's story becomes The Horse Whisperer's emotional core, not just a plot device whereby Tom and Annie find themselves and one another.

Redford's Tom is exactly the kind of character we expect from Redford: a solid, kind, rugged man who is long on patience and rarely displays much emotion. It could be argued that the former matinee idol is a little too old for this sort of role, but, even with his features growing wrinkled and weathered, the camera still flatters him. Kristin Scott Thomas makes a worthy opposite: she's attractive (but not so stunning that she steals the spotlight away from her older co-star), mature, and a good actress. Solid support is provided by the always-reliable Sam Neill, Chris Cooper (Lone Star), and Dianne Wiest.

Emotionally, The Horse Whisperer finds the perfect pitch. There's no overacting and no overt audience manipulation; we feel with and for the characters, but there's never a sense that we're being tricked into providing a particular, desired response. The film is neither relentlessly downbeat nor needlessly cheerful; it's about healing, but there is a strong, bittersweet current running through the love story subplot.

As a director, Redford has never shown greater mastery of his material. His presentation of Montana, with all of its glorious open spaces, is enough to make anyone in the theater think about heading west. He also manages to make the day-to-day activities of running a ranch and working with horses seem interesting. At the outset, I feared that I might be bored by The Horse Whisperer, but, despite the running length (which creeps close to Titanic territory with no shipwreck in sight), I found myself thoroughly absorbed. The presentation of the truck accident is memorable for the way in which it is staged -- it's loud, horrifying, and chaotic. The editing and cinematography are perfect, and fashion an unforgettable cinematic moment.

Speaking of cinematography, it's necessary to say a few words about Richard Richardson's work, which is effective throughout. As good as Richardson is in photographing the sky and land, and presenting instances in silhouette, he is no less accomplished in capturing the nuances of small moments -- a quick smile here, a studied glance there. Most capable cinematographers would be hard-pressed not to make a shot of the Rocky Mountains look impressive; Richardson does as much with his photography of the characters as he does with the setting.

Redford, along with screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Eric Roth, has made a significant change to the ending of the story as presented in the novel. But, while die-hard fans of Evans' book may be disappointed by the alteration, which significantly dampens the level of melodrama, it fits perfectly with the delicately-balanced tale and characters Redford has brought to the screen. Every summer, it seems that there is at least one literate, intelligent alternative to the mindless blaze of action films. For the early season of 1998, it's The Horse Whisperer. Godzilla may be bigger, but for those who care about plot and character, and who want to experience a genuine emotional response, this is the real giant.

Horse Whisperer, The (United States, 1998)

Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1998
Run Time: 2:50
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1