"The Horse Whisperer," which Robert Redford has adapted from the best-selling novel by Nicholas Evans, recalls a common description of war and parenthood: interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
Clocking in at a posterior-numbing three hours, "The Horse Whisperer" is a long, slow travelogue of gorgeous natural and human scenery punctuated by deeply troubling scenes involving a tormented horse. That's entertainment?
Granted, it only looks like torment: The production notes take pains to assure us the American Humane Association was on hand during all the animal scenes, so we can at least rest assured that in real life, these beautiful beasts were treated just fine.
If only that could be said for filmgoers. We must stomach an early scene so horrifying that, even if what followed were mildly engrossing, its distressing aftereffect would be difficult to shake off. But the subsequent events, which chiefly consist of a painful recovery and endless scenes of people riding across the plains looking longingly at each other, are pretty painful in themselves.
It's a difficult feat to pull off, but "The Horse Whisperer" manages to be upsetting and boring at the same time.
The story commences early on a Connecticut winter morning, nTC when 14-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) takes her beloved horse, Pilgrim, on a ride with her best friend. The girls are too distracted by talk about boys and parties to notice the paths are becoming increasingly icy, and their carefree outing soon takes on the unmistakable aura of doom.
Grace survives, but she is badly injured. Even worse off is Pilgrim, whose physical and emotional scars -- he's terrified of humans now -- run deep and dark. Grace gives the go-ahead to put him down, but her mother, Annie, a high-powered, all-controlling magazine editor played by Kristin Scott Thomas, refuses to let the horse go. She tracks down Tom Booker, a cattle rancher and master horseman in Montana who is famous for rehabilitating troubled horses.
It's easy to see why Redford, who plays the horse whisperer, was attracted to this role, which no doubt appealed to his love of the outdoors, a nostalgia for cowboy roles and his desire to prove he's still credible as a romantic leading man. Trouble is, he barely utters a word to the lonely, horribly scarred Pilgrim -- not even a hoarse whisper.
The audience is asked to fill in a lot of blanks in "The Horse Whisperer." Rather than an in-depth portrayal of a family in crisis, we get sweeping shots of people riding across golden plains. Instead of the rebirth of a troubled young girl, we get Redford taunting -- sorry, whispering -- Pilgrim with ropes. By the end of this harrowing film the audience can be forgiven for feeling as exhausted as Booker's equine clients.
"The Horse Whisperer" might have been an emotionally gripping story about a horse and the man who brings him back to life. It might have been a poignant excavation of the ties of fury and adoration that bind mothers and daughters, or the powerful psychic bond between young girls and their horses. It might even have been a respectable, if slightly gooey, love story. Instead, it's primarily about how good Robert Redford looks in a cowboy hat.
The fact the hat was custom made for the star, should tip audiences off that Booker's ranch is less than authentic. Picturesque picnics, a guest cabin that puts the Tahoe hideaway in "City of Angels" to shame and music legend Don Edwards singing around a campfire create a Hollywood burlesque of life in the West.
There are moments of "Horse Whisperer" that recall Redford's superbly controlled film "Ordinary People." Like its family, Annie and Grace are privileged people going through emotional trauma. But unlike Mary Tyler Moore, Scott Thomas is too soft-edged to play the brittle, confused Annie. And Redford ain't no Judd Hirsch.
One performer keeps his dignity within the high-gloss pathos: High Tower, who with five other horses portrayed the long-suffering Pilgrim in a heroic and genuinely touching performance (he even survives a bad continuity gaffe involving a video that clearly stars another horse).
Redford may deserve all manner of curses for vanity and vapid emotionalism, but by all means spare the horse he rode in on.
'The Horse Whisperer'
Starring Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Neill
Directed by Robert Redford
Rated PG-13 (a disturbing accident scene)
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Sun score **
Pub Date: 5/15/98