The Horse Whisperer
(1998, directed by Robert Redford,

Awake or asleep, Grace MacLean is astride a horse. When she isn't riding a horse, she's dreaming of horses or daydreaming of horses -- until she loses her best friend and part of her right leg in a riding accident.

But horrible as the accident was, it's only the beginning of Grace's troubles. Grace's return to school is a disaster; in their attempts to help her, her parents turn on one another instead of to one another; and her horse, Pilgrim, is so severely traumatized that he won't let anyone or anything near him.

Desperate for answers, Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), pins all her hopes on a horse whisperer, someone with an innate ability to communicate with horses, to understand what makes them tick and to get their internal clocks running right. Annie packs up Grace (Scarlett Johansson) and Pilgrim in her Land Rover and horse trailer and heads for the wilds of Montana, home of horse whisperer Tom Booker (Robert Redford).

From its first fade-in to a horse splashing darkly through the surf to its final shots of Annie's car winding its way back to New York, The Horse Whisperer has something going for it few films even attempt: a stunning lyrical quality woven into its visual tapestry. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has the rare ability to fuse into a single vision the broad landscapes of Big Sky country and the small details that reveal character.

Just as striking are the scenes in which Booker works Pilgrim in his Montana corral: the camera never stops moving for a minute, and the constant cutting back and forth from Pilgrim to Booker underscores the growing, dynamic relationship between a wounded horse and a wounded man.

But there's more to Horse Whisperer than pretty pictures; there's a tale of human healing, too, as Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) begins to sense that Booker's rare ability doesn't end at the corral gate, and of human suffering, as the sudden arrival of Annie's husband (Sam Neill) reminds everyone that even the pastoral ideal has real-world limitations.

The result is an odd mix: sort of half Noel Coward play, half equestrian Miracle Worker, with Redford as a cowboy Annie Sullivan and Johansson as his Helen Keller -- and a pinch of Casablanca thrown in to spice up the ending. Under a less certain hand, such an unstable compound might have fallen apart before it had a chance to bond, but Redford, who also directed, is as good with the camera as Booker is with horses.

Granted, at 164 minutes it's much too long -- the result of too many yearning looks across too many rooms -- and it proves less effective in portraying problems between human beings than the problems of horses. But stocked with watchable stars, hypnotic horse-working sequences and the sexiest slow dance since prom bands stopped playing "Harlem Nocturne," The Horse Whisperer is guaranteed to make even the most discriminating fans feel at home on the range -- whether they're there for the horses or the horseplay.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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