The Horse Whisperer
Director: Robert Redford. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Neill, Chris
Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Ty Hillman, Cherry Jones. Screenplay: Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese (based on
the novel by Nicholas Evans).
"Horse whispering" is still not a concept I understand very well even after watching Robert Redford's
adaptation of Nicholas Evans' best-selling novel. I have a vague sense that the whisperer acts as a sort
of shaman, speaking in hushed tones, moving as slowly and quietly as possible, and avoiding any gestures
or behaviors that could disturb or provoke the horse in any conceivable way. If that assessment is fair,
then Redford appears to be a devout practitioner of the craft not only in his role as Tom Booker, soother
of equines, but in his capacity as director of this projectwhich is to say that The Horse
Whisperer is as slow, soothing, undaring, and nebulous as the regimen it describes.
The film begins promisingly with a haunting montage in which Grace Maclean (Scarlett Johansson), an
adolescent girl as the greatest horse-worshippers are, takes an easy sunrise trot through the winter
woods with her best friend. Their respective animals have trouble climbing a steep, ice-covered hill,
and suddenly a succession of terrifying mishaps has both girls and both horses sprawled in a heap on a
snow-covered highway, where an oncoming tractor-trailer kills Grace's friend, severely injures her right
leg, and causes enough injury to Pilgrim, Grace's horse, that he bucks around wildly and takes on a
permanent state of anxiety whenever anything, human or object, comes anywhere near him.
Grace's mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets a phone call reporting her daughter's trauma on her
portable cell-phone in her swank publishing office; she runs to the hospital where her husband Robert
(Sam Neill) informs her that Grace's leg has already been amputated below the knee. Through the
introductory scenes in her magazine office, her demeanor with the hospital staff, and Robert's edgy
distance from her, we immediately perceive that Annie is a class-A control-freak, the kind of person who
can least tolerate the helplessness of a hospital waiting room or the intrusion of such awful accidents
into her stable, if slightly chilly, private world.
Meanwhile, Grace and Pilgrim emerge from their respective operations with ungainly physical scars and
even more debilitating psychic burdens. Grace refuses her parents' efforts to nurture her back into good
spirits and concludes almost immediately that no one will ever look past her new handicap long enough to
care about her personality; thus, in Johansson's admirably off-putting performance, she essentially
decides not to have a personality, substituting instead a barrage of criticisms, lamentations, and
sardonic comments that don't make her recovery, or her parents', any easier. Her sourness recalls that
of Jude Law's crippled athlete in last year's Gattaca, but unlike that
tough, high-minded movie, The Horse Whisperer is mainly interested in using its characters'
wounds and scars as quick, teary excuses to "heal" them: with panoramic sunsets, with buttery close-ups, with obligatory love interests.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. While Grace is busy transforming herself into a spitting cobra,
Pilgrim has grown so unruly that he is isolated in the dark back end of his stable. The manager of the
animals insists that Pilgrim should be put down, but Annie refuses. Starting from this untenable
situation, Redford and script writers Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County) expose the alternate perceptions and
blindnesses of all three of the Macleans. Robert sees that his daughter needs a careful balance of
affection and freedom to recover, but he doesn't understand anything about the deep connection she feels
to Pilgrim. Grace, of course, considers the horse almost as a spiritual twin, and sees how their
injuries, in mind and body, essentially mirrror one another; she grasps that Pilgrim should not have to
live his life in such conditions, but is too depressed and cynical about her own loss, and perhaps too
romantic in her identification with the horse, that she decides she may as well be put to sleep as well.
For her part, Annie perceives both the strength of the relationship between Grace and Pilgrim and the
imminent collapse of Grace's will to live, but she cannot set aside her own need to manage things long
enough to let their recoveries transpire at the proper pace.
Most of these scenes are taut and effective, but once Annie calls Tom Booker long-distance in Montana to
ask for help restoring Pilgrim (and, by extension she hopes, her daughter) to health, the movie begins a
long decline into listlessness and botched formulas that risk forfeiting our interest altogether. I have
never found Redford's onscreen presence to be particularly powerful, though his love for the quiet and
the open space of Big Sky country allows him to relate easily to Tom Booker and contribute a perfectly
serviceable if unremarkable performance. Unfortunately, his passion for the Montana sceneryalmost a
spiritual exaltation of the place and its peoplebecomes such a primary concern that the dramas between
the characters become muted and confused. Robert Richardson, the brilliant cinematographer behind Oliver
Stone's kaleidoscopic epics (JFK, Nixon), is forced here to deliver
the kind of fulsome, drooling, glamour-shot photography that looks fantastic but contributes nothing
artistically to the film.
In fact, The Horse Whisperer's biggest problem is its complete lack of any particular point of
view: in the narrative, in the cinematography, you name it. A starry-eyed advocacy for the Upper Plains'
"simpler life" is not a potent enough perspective to sustain a 160-minute film, though The Horse
Whisperer certainly has no business being that long anyway. (The conspicuous over-length of the
picture struck me as a sort of dare from Redford to the audience to actually jettison their worldly
concerns and accept the slower rhythms of life he forces upon his characters.) The scenes in which
Pilgrim is soothed by Redford are often shot in extreme long-shot, which again makes room for some purple
mountains' majesty, but leaves us almost entirely clueless as to what is transpiring between man and
horse. We need to have a better understanding of this process, because the film so obviously wants us to
analogize Tom Booker's nurturing of Pilgrim with the gradual way in which he loosens up and woos Annie,
whose husband stayed behind when she and her daughter took the cross-country trek.
If Booker is taming the horse through some mystical cross-species therapy, do we really want to make the
jump that a similar process can make Annie drop her jet-set lifestyle and love this quiet rancher? Is
the feat of calming and soothing her really enough to make her love him, or for that matter, make him
love her, since the two seem like such complete opposites of personality and ideology? Scott Thomas
belongs in that small, invaluable group of actors (Joan Allen, Maggie Smith, and Samuel L. Jackson also
come to mind) who are not only always convincing as performers, but act with such confidence and
eloquence that they add an air of distinction to whatever project they've signed on to. Even that
quality, however, cannot make us believe the strained and ostensibly passionate affair that grows between
her Annie and Redford's Tom. Scenes of campfire story-telling and tense, silent slow-dancing mirror scenes
from her starring role in The English Patient so exactly that they only
contrast the lack of conviction in this picture with the wild storms of emotion that circulated
throughout Minghella's epic.
The difficult, bruised relationship between Scott Thomas and Johansson remains compelling throughout
The Horse Whisperer, and the ways in which these two unhappy women pull each other, or try to, out
of their mutual depressions seemed far more real and more magical to me than the wispy portraits of
Robert Redford sitting in a field staring at a horse. I was also interested in Tom's brother-in-law
Frank (Chris Cooper) and his wife Diane (Dianne Wiest), a couple for whom Tom is essentially a third
spouse and a fundamental assistant in the duties of the household and the ranch. Unfortunately, despite
the presence of two of our finest character actors, Roth and LaGravenese's script has little interest in
Frank and Diane besides the structural needs for 1) a place for Tom and eventually Annie to live, and 2)
a model of a rural family to contrast with the incommunicative, privately pained Macleans.
Wiest at least has a short exchange by a riverside with Scott Thomas that bristles with latent antagonism
and defensiveness, but the actresses' perfect navigation of that scene only reminds us of how much fuller
a picture The Horse Whisperer might have been if it stopped looking toward the sky and mountains
every once in a while and actually paid serious, unmanipulated attention to the people it is ostensibly
about. Nothing in this film, save perhaps Johansson's risky interpretation of Grace, should offend or
upset anyone, which is probably a virtue in the eyes of its big-hearted director and in those of its studio, hoping
for a broadly-appealing summertime box-office champ. That makes The Horse Whisperer a fairly
digestible product, but especially for such a long meal it certainly isn't very filling. C