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Redford's 'Horse': Familiar Ride

By Michael O'Sullivan
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, 49 minutes
Contains a graphic and bloody scene of an accident
Call it "The Horses of Madison County."

Like that other film about mature desire in the American heartland, "The Horse Whisperer" is a handsome and effective-if over-long-tear-jerker about thwarted love between grown-ups who should know better, this time set on a Montana cattle ranch, instead of among the covered bridges of Iowa.

"The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Horse Whisperer," both based on best-selling novels, were produced and directed by their craggily handsome male stars: Clint Eastwood for "Bridges" and Robert Redford for "Whisperer." Although neither one has ever been an actor capable of submerging his iconic persona in a role, both performers are vessels into whom oversized characters can easily be poured. They are never anything other than themselves on screen.

As with the earlier film, the real heavy lifting in "Whisperer" is done by its female costars. Meryl Streep earned an Oscar nomination for her poignant portrayal of a romance-starved housewife in "Bridges." As an estranged mother and daughter in "The Horse Whisperer," both Kristin Scott Thomas and Scarlett Johansson certainly deserve a nod from the Academy this year.

These and other similarities are not entirely coincidental. The able "Bridges" screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese, in fact co-wrote the "Whisperer" script, along with Eric Roth of "Forrest Gump" fame. As before, LaGravanese's gift for thoughtful, adult emotion shows.

The story is set in motion when a harrowing riding accident leaves teenager Grace MacLean (Johansson) and her beloved horse, Pilgrim, emotionally and physically damaged. The animal's injuries, so grievous that the vet had wanted to put him down, have now healed, but he has become an unbridled nut-job. Grace, her face once filled with jubilant life, has soured into a sullen brat. As for her parents-brittle magazine editor Annie (Scott Thomas) and put-upon lawyer Robert (Sam Neill)-their bloodless marriage is in dire need of a transfusion.

Accustomed to thinking she can fix everything herself, Annie packs up Pilgrim and Grace and-against her daughter's wishes-heads from New York to Montana, where she has tracked down the best horse therapist money can buy. Arriving with a trailer full of angry equine in tow and a surly adolescent in the back seat, she meets (and soon falls for) Tom Booker (Redford), a soft-focus vision in denim who looks as though he stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. Part wrangler, part shrink and part Bodhisattva, Booker is said to be a "horse whisperer," a man whose enlightened capacity for inter-species communion out-do- littles Dr. Dolittle.

The stage is now set for a painstaking series of transformations-between horse and rider, between mother and daughter, and ultimately between Annie and husband Robert as well. During the course of the healing, there are far too many misty close-ups of horses' eyeballs and postcard panoramas of the West for my taste, but rest assured: Tear ducts will be lubricated.

What centers the film, however, and keeps it from becoming just another wobbly-legged melodrama is an unexpected but solid idea that is threaded throughout the narrative. It is the old-fangled notion of utility, a virtue not much in vogue these days but one which pervades "The Horse Whisperer" like the unglamorous but hearty aroma of manure. Just as beasts are often euthanized when they are no longer of use-either as mounts or studs-there is a sense in the film that the same precept applies to people as well. After her accident, Grace worries that she has become "useless." Tom, too, confesses that his chief fear is of "growing old and not being much use."

That plain and somewhat dowdy belief goes against the grain of Manhattan sophisticates like Annie, whose egotism is held up in stark contrast to characters such as Tom's frumpy but functional sister-in-law, Diane Booker (Dianne Wiest wearing what looks to be a fat suit).

The intriguingly retrograde lesson offered by Tom and Diane and, yes, even Pilgrim is simply this: that happiness in life-in fact its very meaning-comes not from achieving our own gratification but from the service we provide to others.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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