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THE HORSE WHISPERER

by: Scott Renshaw

Here's the easy part:  Robert Redford's THE HORSE WHISPERER is unquestionably the most visually stunning American film of 1998.  Based on Nicholas Evans' best-selling 1995 novel, it tells the story of three damaged creatures seeking healing on a journey from New York to Montana: Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), a 13-year-old girl who has lost a leg in an accident; Pilgrim, Grace's horse, wounded physically and psychically in the same accident; and Grace's mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a no-nonsense magazine editor determined to make both of them whole again. The object of their journey is a horse trainer named Tom Booker (Redford), whose unconventional methods of trying to understand a horse's problems has made him well-known as a "horse whisperer."

THE HORSE WHISPERER's setting provides plenty of predictably glorious Western vistas, but this isn't merely OUT OF MONTANA, a collection of scenic post-cards posing as a film.  Redford opens the film with a haunting sequence depicting Grace's accident, Robert Richardson's cinematography turning the snowy landscape into a portrait of cool horror. There are also memorable scenes of life on the Booker ranch -- bountiful dinners at the table of Tom's brother Frank (Chris Cooper) and sister-in-law Diane (Dianne Wiest), the round-up of young calves for branding, quiet nights telling stories on the front porch.  And of course there are beautiful images of Tom's work with Pilgrim, powerful and lyrical confrontations set to Thomas Newman's eclectic score.

It may come as a surprise, however, to find that Redford's finest piece of directing occurs not under the Big Sky, but under the roof at a dance.  It is here that the slowly building romance between Annie -- married to a decent man (Sam Neill), but discontented nonetheless -- and Tom reaches its boiling point.  As they share a slow dance to the twangy strains of "A Soft Place to Fall," Redford slides the camera over two bodies moving ever closer.  Hands grip each other more tightly; legs intertwine; cheeks press together.  It's the kind of scene you would expect in an era where explicit sexuality was impossible, a scene more intensely romantic and erotic than a dozen recent displays of exposed flesh.

With so much mesmerizing beauty in Redford's direction, you would expect THE HORSE WHISPERER to be a hands-down contender for best film of the year.  And I'm sure it will show up on plenty such lists, evidence of the way its images will sear their way into your consciousness.  Yet there's an intangible something missing from THE HORSE WHISPERER, something which keeps it from making the leap from very good film to modern classic.  As a story, it's essentially a rekindling of the myth of the Old West as place of renewal, where refugees from the city search for a new start.  It works splendidly as mythology, but it doesn't always work splendidly as character study, locking a viewer more strongly into the spirit of the narrative than into the relationships between individual characters.  The first-rate cast does fine work with those characters, but each one has moments where he or she seems more like a type than a person.

It feels like quibbling to find fault with such matters in THE HORSE WHISPERER, because Hollywood drama generally doesn't get much more patient and enthralling.  There's a lot to be said for the fact that the film never feels tedious even as it pushes the three-hour mark.  I just recall another recent film version of a best-selling romance -- Clint Eastwood's THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY -- where the fate of the star-crossed lovers felt more urgent, more genuine, more human.  I left the theater dazzled, but not emotionally drained.  THE HORSE WHISPERER is a spectacular piece of film-making just one re-write removed from greatness.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 horse senses:  8.

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