The Horse Whisperer
In The Horse Whisperer, a stressed-out city-slicker woman goes to Montana with her anguished teenage daughter and their uncontrollable horse; she falls in love with the studly trainer who works with the horse. How long did it take you to read that? Ten seconds? It takes Robert Redford, the director and star, two hours and forty-nine minutes. It feels like a lot longer, too. One can appreciate what Redford is trying to do: He wants to slow us down, to lure us into the leisurely tempo of ranch life. That’s nice of him, but unfortunately he also gives us plenty of time to poke holes in the story.
The Horse Whisperer is a sort of compendium of Redford’s first three directorial efforts: the touchy-feely family conflict of Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It meets the hardworking-people-of-the-soil worship of The Milagro Beanfield War. Admirers of Redford’s previous (and best) directorial outing, Quiz Show, won’t find any of that film’s subtlety or smarts here. I haven’t read Nicholas Evans’ source novel (adapted by The Fisher King‘s Richard LaGravenese and Forrest Gump‘s Eric Roth), but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it isn’t what the movie is — The Horses of Madison County.
Redford is Tom Booker, a laid-back cowboy who dedicates himself to gentling wild horses when he isn’t posing or Pez-dispensing bits of down-home wisdom. New York editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) seeks him out after her daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) gets into an accident that leaves her with an amputated leg and her horse with physical and psychic wounds. It’s up to Tom, the ten-gallon therapist, to work his charms on the horse and its equally wounded owners. For fun, I imagined transplanting Tom to Ordinary People and letting him loose on Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton; he’d set those uptight WASPs straight in no time — or in less time than it takes to cure Annie and Grace.
The movie looks great (cinematographer Robert Richardson did the honors), and Redford looks suspiciously great — certainly much younger than he did during his chat with Rosie O’Donnell last week. At times he’s prettier than his leading lady. And the additional burden of directing himself seems to have drained his charisma. But then the character of Tom as written defies any interesting performance. Tom is a noble New Age cowboy, while Annie is a standard rigid careerist and Grace is a pouty teen. I kept flashing back to The Sweet Hereafter, which gave us ten times as much in half the screen time, and Johansson won’t erase anyone’s memory of Sarah Polley’s fate-scarred Nicole. Scott Thomas, meanwhile, seems to be humoring Redford as both co-star and director, giving him the simplistic emotions he wants.
The forgotten man of The Horse Whisperer is poor Sam Neill, once again the clueless cuckold (see The Piano), as Annie’s doormat husband, who lets her yank their child out of school and live on a ranch thousands of miles away with a guy she’s never met. Neill is offscreen for most of the movie, then shows up near the end to complicate things as much as things ever get complicated in this film. Annie faces a difficult choice — should she stay or should she go? I felt the same conflict about halfway through this very long sit, but I heeded Tom’s sage advice about sticking to it, and so I did, long after Redford had beaten his thematic dead horse (“To thine own self be true”) to death and beyond.