The Horse Whisperer May 28, 2016
Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) didn’t think her life was going to end up this way. Had you asked her what her current level of emotional satisfaction was a couple years earlier and she might have told you that there’s not a thing in her life that she would change. She loves her job (she’s an obsessive magazine editor), has married the perfect man (Sam Neill), and has a daughter (Scarlett Johansson) with potential any parent would be envious of. Everything’s worked out the way she thought it would — she lives the life everyone dreams of during their first few years of college, where unknowns fly left and right and a solid existence is questionable.
But as 1998’s The Horse Whisperer opens, something has changed. Her occupation is as thrilling as it’s ever been, but it’s taken over her life. We sense that her marriage is in comfortability mode, passion hardly present, and we sense that Annie’s relationship with her child isn’t as intimate and all-encompassing as it could be. So her world is rocked when a tragic accident shatters the family dynamic. While out horseback-riding with her best friend (Kate Bosworth), Annie’s daughter, Grace, gets in a traumatic accident that leaves her horse physically and psychically damaged and her riding partner dead. Grace leaves the hospital with part of her right leg amputated.
Understandably, recovery isn’t easy. As she’s experienced something that’s going to sit in the back of her mind every day for the rest of her life, returning to her usual routine is next to impossible. Pressure is being placed upon her to put down her horse, Pilgrim. But Annie, deeply concerned and unwilling to take the easy way out, does the unthinkable. Figuring that Grace will only be able to heal so long as Pilgrim does too, she contacts Tom Booker (Robert Redford), a renowned horse “whisperer” whose methods have brought several animals out of their warped states. Though he lives in rural Montana, and though Grace is reluctant, Annie packs up the car, Pilgrim in tow, to spend the next few months undergoing what will hopefully be a successful restorative process. Her husband, Robert, stays behind.
And so begins a strange siesta of psychiatric recuperation and self-discovery. Slowly but surely, Tom is able to lift Pilgrim and Grace out of their respective pits of despair, and Annie, for the first time in years, begins to put all her attention onto her daughter, strengthening their once shaky bond. Disconcerting, however, is the mutual attraction between Tom and Annie, which seems to be more extensive than mere school day crushing.
The Horse Whisperer is a slow-burning and sweeping, 162 minutes, languid yet never listless. As it marks the first time in which Redford both directed and starred in his own film, one can expect bravura filmmaking to be foremost, self-indulgence there but nevertheless subtly maintained.
Some have complained that the movie is too long-winded and patient for its story. Yet I found myself transfixed by its pacing, which is sleepy but detailed, thoughtful but blithe. It works. It’s a mature movie of magnetic poignancy, and its attentiveness toward the emotional standpoints of its characters is thoroughly felt and never artificial. Because The Horse Whisperer takes its time creeping to its climax (which somehow feels rushed; the film could drone on and on and we’d still be intrigued), these characters come to life in ways rarely seen in film. We can feel their pains and their hesitancies, and it’s sneakily exhilarating.
Many of these triumphs can be brought back to Nicholas Evans, Eric Roth, and Richard LaGravenese’s excellent screenplay, which defiantly makes the concoction of suffering, self-actualization, and longing ring with escapist purity. While watching The Horse Whisperer, I was reminded of 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County, a romantic film similarly poetic and similarly written by LaGravenese. Both films used the space of a sizable running time as a way to allow for its characters to become more than just characters, to allow us to experience their feelings in a beautifully cinematic way. In some respects, though, The Horse Whisperer is more successful of a film than Bridges was, maybe because its larger cast emphasizes a wider range of emotions (therefore deepening its fantastical realism), or maybe because trauma is something that can hardly be romanticized in a feature film.
I think the biggest difference lies in the ensemble, who is effectively ardent and more humanely sympathetic. Thomas finds a lush middle-ground between control and desperation as a woman who’s sharp as a tack when it comes to logistics but perhaps not so dextrous when it comes to serving the needs of herself and those she loves. Redford is strong and grounded — he’s a good romantic lead but is even better behind the camera — and supporting performances from Dianne Wiest and Neill are critical in shaping the movie’s backbone.
But the thing we remember most about The Horse Whisperer is Johansson, who was only thirteen during filming and who delivers the most evocative performance amongst the cast. Such is not an easy thing to do, considering she’s surrounded by veterans who have arguably done nothing but terrific work in the majority of their films. But there’s a reason why Johansson is one of the most extraordinary stars of her generation: while she possesses timeless good looks, she’s able to convey enduring plaintiveness that makes her alluring to watch on a humanistic level. And watching her carry a film at such a young age is nothing short of a wonder. As Grace, Johansson is heart-rending, a tragic figure made all the more tragic because of her juvenility. This is one of her greatest performances.
But in regards to the whole, The Horse Whisperer remains to be filmmaking of the highest quality. Redford’s vision, which is grand and exuberant, is invigorating to behold, the writing and performances supplementing his prowess rather delectably. The film is, by any standard, a little long for even the most accommodating of viewers, and the conclusion doesn’t quite fit — it’s too bittersweet, too swift, for a movie that finds the silver lining in all the worst aspects of life, that finds nuances in even the most mundane of details. Cinematically, though, it doesn’t get any better than this. B+