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Review: Expect saddle sores from 'Horse Whisperer'

Movie Strip May 19, 1998
Web posted at: 11:34 p.m. EDT (0334 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It doesn't take a genius to recognize that "The Horse Whisperer" is Robert Redford's attempt to harness the same partially icky-gooey vibe that made Clint Eastwood's adaptation of "The Bridges of Madison County" so popular a few years ago.

If only Redford had been as successful as Eastwood was in serving up a heapin' helpin' of romanticism while negotiating the pitfalls of the source material's inherent middlebrow wish-fulfillment.

There's a great deal to like about "The Horse Whisperer," if you're not looking for all that much or are in the right mood, but the same can be said of a Hallmark greeting card featuring a moony, silhouetted couple walking down the beach, holding hands and leaning their heads together. And the average person can take in everything a greeting card has to offer in a helluva lot less than two hours and 45 minutes.

Sucker that I am for those rare individuals who actually mean what they're saying, I've fully appreciated the highly emotional tone of Redford's previous directorial efforts, even the relatively maligned "The Milagro Beanfield War."

You can feel the heart he's invested in this one, too. He makes old-fashioned movies in the best sense of that term -- beautifully shot, richly rendered stories that aim for some hearty tear-jerking without getting completely obvious in the attempt. There are pitfalls to this stuff, however, and "The Horse Whisperer" eventually pays for it.

The accident

Even though most of it worked quite wonderfully, "A River Runs Through It" showed occasional signs of strain, with the religiosity of fly fishing starting to seem, well, a little fishy after a while. Horses are revered this time around, just like they are in the hugely popular Nicholas Evans novel that serves as the movie's inspiration. Personally, I've never completely bought into the symbolic majesty of horses.

All of us sat in front of a girl in junior high school who spent her every waking hour drawing flowing-maned pictures of the damned things (I've always pegged Tori Amos as one of those girls, for some reason).

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If you used to be that kind of kid, you need to get yourself to the theater right now. It's not that I don't sympathize; I completely understand the tendency to marvel at a great animal's grace and beauty, but when a 14-year-old can grasp the metaphorical power of something during a lull in social studies class, an adult movie based on it is bound to suffer.

Speaking of 14-year-old girls, there's a pretty ornery one at the heart of this story. The extremely powerful opening sequence shows Grace (played with a mega-pout by Scarlett Johansson) riding her prized horse, Pilgrim, along a mountain slope with her best friend.

Snow is gently falling when the friend's horse loses its footing on the ice, falls, and brings Grace and Pilgrim down with her. They soon end up in the middle of an icy country road, with an 18-wheeler skidding toward them.

Redford brilliantly orchestrates the accident, including the truck's graphic impact with the horses, like a dreamy David Lynch sequence. The friend and her horse are killed, Pilgrim's hide is torn to the point that the vet who eventually sedates him thinks he should be put down, and Grace has to have a mangled leg amputated.

Redford the healer

Grace's embattled parents, whose lack of marital bliss is quickly established, argue about what to do with the horse, and her magazine editor mother, Annie -- played with her usual sense of sexy, easy style by Kristin Scott Thomas -- wins. Pilgrim will be bandaged up, and his recuperation will be used as a tool to also heal Grace.

One of the problems with the movie in the early going is that Grace is angry about losing her best friend and ending up an amputee; her mom is angry about the tragedy, too much pressure at work and her failing marriage; and Grace's father (Sam Neill, a little less clench-jawed than usual) is just generally distressed by the smorgasbord of heartbreak. Everybody is miffed the minute the story gets under way, and you really have a hard time liking them very much.

Grace, in particular, is mean-spirited and unforgiving in the extreme, and, frankly, you can't be blamed for wishing they would send her to bed without her leg.

But Thomas' character goes out of her way to try to get her going again. She does a pile of research on horses and eventually gets in touch with Tom Booker, a Montana cowboy (played by Redford in full denim mode) who's described in a magazine article as a "horse whisperer," an extremely laid-back, but shaman-like healer of spooked animals.

Tom refuses to help Annie, for reasons that aren't made altogether clear in the script (by Eric Roth, who ladled on the porridge-based "heart" in "Forrest Gump," and Richard LaGravanese). But she packs up her daughter and the battered horse and lugs them out to the far country anyway.

Booker, sporting Redford's bemused, one-eyed squint (look for Harrison Ford's patented, angry index-finger pointing later this summer), eventually sizes up the situation, and agrees to the laborious process of horse recuperation ... but we know that he's actually got that squinty eye on mending his guests' hearts.

And, of course, there's going to be a possibly doomed romance between Tom and Annie. If you smell a wide variety of tearful hugs on the horizon, you'll be relieved to know that your commercial-screenplay nose is in perfect working order.

Overdosing on scenery

This is all done very, very slowly; Thomas and Johansson's thawing process is akin to experiencing a couple of ice sculptures melting in real time, with the camera more often than not focusing on the rivers, mountains and horses in lieu of people. The countryside is gorgeous, to say the least, and Redford's well-known love for it is on full display, but it reminded me of Pete Townshend's observation about John Denver: It's nice that the guy appreciates nature, but does he have to tell you about it in every single song?!

It's not incorrect to refer to Redford's passion in musical terms, either. Thomas Newman's moving score is a highlight of the film, and it's applied to several slow-motion horse sequences that look just dandy, but they take up a great deal more time than they need to.

Though I'm more than willing to sit through this kind of thing, I got it pretty quickly, and eventually overdosed on the glorious horsey-ness of it.

Shades of 'Andy Griffith'

There's also too much of the usual aw-shucks country geniality from Redford's brother and sister-in-law (Chris Cooper and Dianne Wiest, both of whom are quite good), and for a long while Annie is portrayed like the city slickers on "The Andy Griffith Show" -- you know, the self-centered connivers who show up and act like they know everything, then eventually end up trying to steal Aunt Bea's jewelry when nobody's looking.

You have to feel a little bad when you don't completely accept a movie with this much goodness in its heart.

But if you're dreading the upcoming demolition-based summer movie season as much as I am, you may be well-advised to savor "The Horse Whisperer" for its drawn-out charms. We're not really all that high up the mountain yet, and it more than likely will be all downhill from here.

"The Horse Whisperer" is suitable for 14-year-old girls of all ages. The accident at the start of the film is truly harrowing, especially for people who get more worked up when animals get hurt in movies than when people do.

Pilgrim's wounds are also pretty gruesome, but he heals up nicely. I wanted to say that Redford has made the ultimate horse lover's wet dream, but then I realized that the crazy guy from "Equus" would show up in a theater somewhere, and I would get blamed. PG-13. 164 minutes. Expect saddle sores.


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