The Horse Whisperer Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

That's just what we need. A vegetarian from New York on our cow ranch.

"The Horse Whisperer" is not a mere cinematic adaptation of the best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans; it builds upon the book's account, creating an infinitely richer yet more subtlely-told story of healing-- both of strained relationships and of the emotional scars borne by tragedy. The strong narrative, coupled with Robert Redford's dazzling direction, make this one of the early contenders for this year's Oscar nominations.

I don't have all the answers.
No... you just act like you do.

The film begins with a tragic accident in upstate New York, involving two teenage girls on horseback on a winter day. One of the horses loses its footing climbing a hill, and the two girls wind up on the road in the path of an oncoming tractor trailer. One girl and her horse are killed on impact, but the other, Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson), survives. However, because of the injuries sustained, Grace has her right leg amputated. Her horse, Pilgrim, which received the full brunt of the collision, is also seriously injured, and seems to have 'gone mad', becoming a danger to itself and others. Though the accident brings Grace's parents to her side, it is clear from the very start that their marriage is passionless and purely functional-- Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an aggressive control-obsessed editor for a glossy women's magazine, whereas Robert (Sam Neill) is her soft spoken lawyer husband. Despite their attempts at creating a stable environment in which their daughter can recover, Grace is so traumatized by the death of her best friend and her condition, that she becomes increasingly withdrawn, staying home from school, ashamed of her disability.

I've never seen an animal with such injuries still alive. I want your permission to put it down.

One of the first choices Annie is given a short time after the accident is whether or not to have Pilgrim 'put down', which the veterinarian strongly suggests. However, Annie decides against it, and instead, she seeks professional help to heal Pilgrim's wounds, which she hopes will also repair Grace's broken spirit. Combing through the various reference sources at her disposal, she comes across an article about a 'horse whisperer' in Montana named Tom Booker (Robert Redford), who is reputed to have a special talent for treating injured horses. At first, Tom rebuffs Annie's request to have him look at Pilgrim, and suggests that she can probably find a horse therapist closer to New York. But after Annie bundles up Grace and Pilgrim and drives across the country to his ranch in Montana, Tom acquiesces.

I think you should put me down too... I'm not much use anymore.

Tom initiates his 'horse whispering' technique on Pilgrim, which involves a combination of discipline and compassion, administered with the greatest patience. As Pilgrim's rider, Grace also plays a part in the equine rehabilitation, and undergoes a similar transformation of her own, shedding her isolationist stance in favor of a more hopeful outlook. With wise discernment and an infinite understanding, Tom helps these two wounded souls find peace in the aftermath of their shared affliction. However, Grace and Pilgrim are not the only characters forever changed by the experience-- Annie finds her long-absent passion stirred by the gentle rancher, whereas Tom, forlorn since his divorce many years prior, once again experiences the throes of true love when he is with Annie.

Don't they believe in signs here?
What would they say? Ten miles to big rock, twenty miles to bigger rock?

Despite the almost three hour running time, the breathtaking vistas, engaging story, and likable characters keep you entranced throughout. Performances are strong all around, most notably Thomas and Johannsson, whose characters, despite being mother and daughter, undergo a similar transformation, allowing their vulnerability and emotions to surface the cold mien that they have erected. Johannsson is particularly affecting as a traumatized girl who cannot imagine being able to overcome her disability-- which interestingly enough, is a similar struggle Annie faces, only within a different context. Redford, now in his sixties, still has an engaging screen presence, and it is not incomprehensible to see him and Thomas as love interests, despite the twenty-odd year age gap. Even the supporting cast is strong, with Chris Cooper ("Lone Star") as Tom's brother, and Dianne Wiest as Tom's sister-in-law in particular.

One day, someone will see the extraordinary woman you're becoming. And they'll love you. That's all they'll see.

However, the strength of "The Horse Whisperer" is that the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese (who wrote "A Little Princess") and Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"). Their script builds on the source material, jettisoning some of the hokier melodrama and hackneyed plotting of the novel. In its place, the scribes have instilled deeper exposition on the crippling emotional paralysis that arises from catastrophic change, and a much more realistic and reaffirming resolution to the Tom-Annie romance. However, fans of the book may be disappointed by these changes, which fundamentally alters the Tom-Annie story arc. But in the end, the picture is stronger for these alterations.

The more I try to fix things, the more they fall apart.
Maybe you should let them fall.
I can't.

"The Horse Whisperer" is a sweeping drama of reconciliation and recovery. Sporting a strong combination of exquisite lensing (by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson), a strong script, enchanting direction, and powerful performances, this film is definitely a contender for one of the best films of 1998.

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