The Austin Chronicle

The Horse Whisperer

Rated PG-13, 164 min. Directed by Robert Redford. Starring Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, Dianne Wiest, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Kate Bosworth.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 15, 1998

I detect the scent of a golden statuette wafting in the breeze. Redford's adaptation of Nicholas Evans' bestselling novel is a countrified, monolithic thing of beauty -- gorgeous to behold despite the fact that its overlong two-hour-and-45-minute running time plays off Redford's weather-beaten golden boy good looks far too often for its own good. It's an homage to all things Redfordian -- the Big Sky country of Montana; the mercurial, saturnine beauty of the horses; and the redemptive power of love, patience, and the great outdoors. The film opens with a masterful sequence that sets the tone for the whole piece. On a snowy winter's morning in upstate New York, 14-year-old Grace MacLean (Johansson) leaves her parents' house to ride horses with her young friend Judith (Bosworth). The two girls discuss boys and ride through the back country until they encounter gravity while climbing a slope overlooking a rural route road. Judith's horse slips, throws her, and topples backwards down the slope into the path of an oncoming tractor trailer while Grace, astride her beloved horse Pilgrim, struggles to save Judith. Amidst the swirling snow, Judith is killed, Grace loses her right leg below the knee, and Pilgrim is terribly injured, his face a gory mess and his right front leg hideously torn. When Grace recovers, she's the shell of the girl she once was: bitter, angry, and terrified of the future. Her mother Annie (Thomas), a high-powered New York magazine editor (think Tina Brown of The New Yorker), refuses to have Pilgrim put down, and instead takes her wounded daughter and the damaged horse 2,000 miles cross country to visit Tom Booker (Redford), a “horse whisperer” who may or may not be able so save the spirits and bodies of both Grace and Pilgrim, while also teaching the city-bred Annie a thing or two about the meaning of life, love, and other single syllable heavy-hitters. Left behind in the city are Grace's father (Neill) and all pretenses of a normal life. Once the story moves to Montana, Redford opens things up, literally, as the screen image widens to take in all those shots of azure skies and sweeping vistas, and all the quiet, emotional avalanches to come. Apart from being a subtle treatise on the redemptive power of the human spirit, the film might as well also be a travelogue for God's country, so enamored of the snow-capped peaks and scudding clouds is the director. Redford, a screen icon if ever there was one, doesn't do too much here except squint and squat, though he does both with panache. And Thomas, as the brittle Brit who finds the meaning of true love beside the New Age horse doctor, is all pained expressions and tousled hair. However, it's the remarkable, affecting performance of Johansson (Manny & Lo) that propels The Horse Whisperer. She's a broken ray of sunlight cutting through the icy pines, and when the film lags with endless shots of the wise Tom Booker birthing a calf or some such, it's she who keeps things focused and alive in the midst of the film's pageant of unspoken truths.

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