Philosophical chick flick has remarkable sense of the West
"The Horse Whisperer" transported me to Montana so effectively that when I left the press screening, for a moment I couldn't remember where I parked my car. I couldn't wrap my head around the concrete landscape of downtown San Francisco.
It wasn't just the predictably gorgeous photography, with its God's-eye-view aerial shots, silhouettes on sunsets, stormy rainbows and watercolor close-ups.
The locations (a cinematic ranching spread on the bank of a lazy river), the tranquil, rural mood and even the sometimes lethargic pace (at 164 minutes, the film is deliberately unhurried) all contribute to the picture's remarkable sense of place.
Directed by Robert Redford, who is known for his passion for the provincial lifestyle, "The Horse Whisperer" is mystical fable about the healing of emotional scars that panders somewhat to the paperback romance set.
Adapted from Nicholas Evans' popular novel about a homeopathic, horse-healing sage who repairs the damaged psyches of a teenage girl and her beloved steed after a horrific riding accident, this is a syrupy chick flick of romance and homespun philosophy. But as syrupy chick flicks go, it ain't bad.
The story begins with 13-year-old Grace (Scarlett Johansson, "Manny and Lo") and her mount Pilgrim getting clobbered by one of those ubiquitous barreling 18-wheelers, this one doing 40 miles per hour on a snowy one-lane mountain road.
The accident as filmed is a visceral experience that immediately bonds the audience to the horse and the girl, both of whom are badly injured.
Grace looses a leg and is plunged into a deep blue funk. Pilgrim is a wreck physically and violently spooked besides, and his veterinarian recommends he be put down. But neither Grace or Annie, her workaholic Manhattan mother played by Kristin Scott Thomas ("The English Patient"), can cope with making that decision.
Looking for an alternative, Annie reads about Tom Booker (Redford), a Montana rancher and "horse whisperer" -- a trainer who uses mutual trust and meditative contact to finesse his horses, rather than the traditional method of "breaking" the animals.
Convinced that this man can rehabilitate Pilgrim, she packs up her daughter, a horse trailer and her Range Rover and drives to the Big Sky State to enlist Booker's help.
For the next two hours, "The Horse Whisperer" is an obliging parade of rolling, green vistas, ranch folk picnics, branding, bonding and Booker's intuitive, country (mixed with New Age) philosophy. Asked if he can help Annie and Grace with their horse problem he says, "Truth is I help horses with people problems."
Late in the film, a romance forms between Booker and Annie, who is grappling with strong feelings of her own about sacrificing her career to do everything she can for her affected daughter.
Redford directs this film with a loving, knowledgeable hand, which makes the unnecessary length somewhat of a trifle. His camera stares deeply into the eyes of his characters, and none more so than the horse, who has as much screen time as any of the humans while Booker works his calm magic on the disturbed creature.
It's more obvious than it should be that several horses play Pilgrim in the long shots, but the horse used in close ups wasn't just hired, he was cast. The amount of pathos and understanding expressed though that animal's eyes is astounding.
But the human players here are no slouches. Johnansson is superbly sullen and troubled as she berates and cautiously bonds with her mother. Scott Thomas is the perfect, furrowed-brow picture of a stressed businesswoman, and she captures the postures of motherhood beautifully.
Redford's talent is undiminished, and at the center of the film is his portrayal of Booker as a man who can get inside the heads and hearts of humans and animals alike. The always reliable Chris Cooper and Diane Wiest have supporting roles as Booker's brother and sister-in-law.
The only weak character is the terribly underwritten part of Grace's father, played by Sam Neill, who conveniently arrives in the last reel to release Annie from their marriage.
As the film enters it's third hour, I had a tendency to tune out on the tender moments, but Redford does have a knack for this sort of story.
"The Horse Whisperer" has same the leisurely-paced, sepia-toned and soft-focused flavor as his 1992 film "A River Runs Through It," another intended epic of Americana. With an aged director-star romancing a younger, married woman, it also harks a bit of "The Bridges of Madison County."
But although "The Horse Whisperer" is a bit overly familiar, and even though the length is self-indulgent, as a director Redford is attentive to small details that highly personalize his films. The way Annie and Booker touch when dancing, for instance, says more about how they're feeling than their faces or their words.
A footnote for fans of the book: The ending has been altered so it's not such a downer. I, for one, am glad.