Review: Expect saddle sores from 'Horse Whisperer'
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.