The Horse Whisperer (review)

Dances with Horses

I was not looking forward to The Horse Whisperer. I kept putting off watching the video. I was terrified it was going to be three hours of relationship porn, endless soft-focus scenes of Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas having discrete sex by candlelight and gazing at each other with desperate yet not too lusty desire.

The Horse Whisperer is three hours long, but it doesn’t feel like it, because, to my great relief, it has greater ambitions than giving bored middle-aged women a thrill with money shots of Robert Redford. It even manages to avoid some of the movie clichés you’d expect to see in a film like this, and, surprisingly, subvert some others.
Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas: Random Hearts, The English Patient) threatened at first to be the cold, distant mom from Ordinary People all over again. Her career as a big-shot magazine editor in New York City gets interrupted when her daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), is grievously injured in a harrowing horse-riding accident at the family’s estate in Connecticut. Annie is the kind of woman who will not jump up from dinner to help her now disabled only child when she stumbles off her crutches — the girl needs to learn to deal with this herself — while in the same breath Mom smoothes down a wrinkled corner of the dining room tablecloth. Annie also refuses, seemingly out of sheer stubbornness, to allow Grace’s mount, Pilgrim, who was also horribly injured, to be put down. Early on, in fact, Annie seems much more concerned with how Pilgrim is recovering than how her own daughter, who has become sullen and uncommunicative, is doing.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that Annie realizes how interconnected girl and horse are, and how their healing must also be a joint effort. Though everyone from her horse handler (Cherry Jones: Cradle Will Rock) to her husband, Robert (Sam Neill: Event Horizon, The Hunt for Red October), insists that the traumatized horse is “beyond help,” Annie ferrets out Tom Booker (Robert Redford: Out of Africa, The Sting), a “horse whisperer” who can, according to the magazine article in which she learns about him, “see into the creature’s soul and soothe the wounds” he finds there, the wounds of domestication and breaking, the insult of the harness and saddle.

It sounds like a bunch of hooey, I know, and if The Horse Whisperer had gotten all New Agey and mystical, it would have lost me. But Tom turns out — when Annie shows up at his ranch in Montana, horse and girl in tow, uninvited and even unwanted — to just be a guy who has a way with horses. Annie and Grace move into a guest house on the ranch — at the behest of Frank (Chris Cooper: American Beauty, October Sky) and Diane (Dianne Wiest: Practical Magic, Edward Scissorhands), Tom’s brother and sister-in-law — and Tom begins to work his magic with Pilgrim. And with Grace, too, of course. It turns out that horse psychology and people psychology isn’t so different, and Tom knows the key to winning over both girl and horse — and drawing them out of their inner turmoil — is to gain trust by giving trust.

Annie and Tom… well, naturally they find themselves growing attracted to each other, and the obvious strain in Annie’s relationship with her husband (who’s still back home in Connecticut) is only an enticement to seek male companionship elsewhere. I thought, Poor Sam Neill: He’s the nice guy who’s gonna get unceremoniously dumped just because he’s not the leading man — that’s one movie cliché that I’m awfully tired of. But again, things don’t quite fall into that typical movie groove. Unlike too many other films in which adultery, or the threat of it, is a key factor, The Horse Whisperer actually sees the wandering spouse recognizing that someone could be hurt by this, and that an affair is not something to be entered into lightly. Annie’s romantic confusion becomes a counterpoint to Grace and Pilgrim’s story of disaster and the healing process that follows. Annie and Grace both discover that it’s possible to recover from tragedy — and that word will have different meanings for everyone — but that sometimes you need to let things fall apart before you can put them back together. And that’s okay — building something new and strong on an existing foundation can be better than shoring up something old and crumbling.

Directed by Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer is a languid film, lingering on gorgeous Big Sky scenery — the sharp peaks of snow-covered mountains, the contrasts of verdant green plains and the rich browns of dirt roads. In long one sequence, Tom waits patiently for hours, sitting still in a field, for a spooked Pilgrim to come back to him. It should be boring, but it’s never less than compelling in a simple, primeval way. A love letter to Montana and ranch life, and an ode to the restorative powers of just letting things go all to hell sometimes, this is a beautiful, moving film.

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