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A Thinking Man's 'Horse Whisperer'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Horse Whisperer
Kristin Scott Thomas asks Robert Redford to help her daughter in "The Horse Whisperer." (Touchstone)

Robert Redford
Robert Redford;
Kristin Scott Thomas;
Sam Neill;
Scarlett Johansson; Diane Wiest;
Chris Cooper;
Cherry Jones
Running Time:
2 hours, 48 minutes
For the graphic depiction of a collision involving two riders, their horses ... and a truck
Sundance is back in the saddle, but he's not a kid anymore.

The signs of maturity, both good and bad, are all over Robert Redford's tastefully understated, morally upright adaptation of "The Horse Whisperer." This film, unlike the juicy bestseller that inspired it, is so chaste and conservative, it's practically Republican.

What Clint Eastwood did for "The Bridges of Madison County," Redford does for Nicholas Evans's pulpy romantic melodrama. The movie is not only a better version of the book, it's a work unto itself. The story is subtler, and the moral issues it raises are far more complex. Before falling into one another's arms, the lovers first think about the consequences of their actions.

The effect can be a little chilly because the producer, director and star expends his passion on the majesty of Big Sky country. The film celebrates the vast and godly landscape along with the close-knit families who work its ranges. Sometimes it bogs down in awe, sometimes in the homey details of the ranchers' lives: the roundups, the hoedowns and the campfire sing-alongs.

With the aid of writers Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King"), Redford has trimmed the corn out of the book to make room for acres of waving wheat. This 2-hour 50-minute movie contains more grain than bran spokesman Wilford Brimley and would have benefited considerably if the editor had gone after it with a mowing machine.

But the wheat does go nicely with Bob's golden hair.

The film focuses on the contentious relationship between Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), a hyper magazine editor, and Grace (Scarlett Johansson), her fragile 14-year-old daughter. Grace and her prized jumper, Pilgrim, survive a horrific riding accident but both are badly injured. Grace loses a leg, the horse is maimed, and neither seems to be healing. When Grace tells her mother that both she and Pilgrim should be put down, Annie becomes convinced that the fates of the two are linked and uses all her resources to resolve the situation.

Staffers soon cover her desk with computer printouts and equine magazines, one of which contains an article about horse whisperer Tom Booker (Redford) and his unique talent for treating horses. Over the mild objections of her husband (Sam Neill), she packs up the disconsolate Grace and the hysterical horse and heads for the Booker family's ranch in Montana.

After some reluctance, Tom, his brother (Chris Cooper) and his sister-in-law (Dianne Wiest) open their home and hearts to the troubled trio. Gradually, all three respond positively to the family's healing ways. The link between mother and daughter is forged anew, and so is that between the gentled horse and its newly confident rider.

Although stories don't get much more uplifting, this one seems to have come to its obvious conclusion, then suddenly Tom and Annie start with the longing gazes. A kiss and a slow dance follow. But the novel's fans are sure to be disappointed that the sex was plowed under.

The film stresses family responsibility over personal gratification, thus the courtship between the ruggedly hunky horse whisperer and the now-mellowed-out career gal is not only dispassionate, it's practically an afterthought.

The footage involving Tom and the berserk Pilgrim similarly lack the promised depth of feeling. Whisperers are described here as savants who "look into the creature's soul and soothe the wounds they find there." Yet Tom's methods don't seem all that different from the ordinary wrangler's. And in one sequence, Tom isn't neighing sweet nothings, but appears to be torturing the poor beast.

Despite its shortcomings, "The Horse Whisperer" is a grown-up film and, like Redford's Oscar-winning first film, "Ordinary People," explores its ambitious themes and dysfunctional relationships with thoughtfulness and sincerity. It is a paean to the hero's many virtues, including discipline, patience, compassion, honesty and sensitivity. And to Redford's credit, he manages to incorporate all these qualities without quite bursting his britches.

Though Scott Thomas is perfectly cast as a vain, bitchy magazine editor, she never really quite fits into her cowgirl boots. But then, who could convincingly transform herself from Tina Brown to Dale Evans even if she did have nearly three hours to do it?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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