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The Horse Whisperer

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4


*Also starring: Sam Neill, Scarlet Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, Ty Hillman, Catherine Bosworth, Jeanette Nolan



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Review by Steve Rhodes
4 stars out of 4

Kneeling stoically in a field of tall grass, Robert Redford, as horse whisperer Tom Booker, locks eyes with Pilgrim, a wild horse with a troubled past, who is a hundred yards away. With Zen-like composure, Tom doesn't flinch as the hours drag on and the day begins to fade. As the wide Montana skies turn a golden orange, he finally wins this latest battle of wills with the horse. With sagacity and determination, Tom has much to teach the equine and human characters in this delicate drama.

Robert Redford, whose only Oscar was for his direction of the brilliant and devastating ORDINARY PEOPLE from 1980, accepts the challenge of directing himself in the starring role in THE HORSE WHISPERER. Quite unlike what passes for drama today, THE HORSE WHISPERER contains deeply felt and complex emotions but without shouting or profanity. Based on Nicholas Evans's best seller, the script by Richard LaGravenese (A LITTLE PRINCESS) and Eric Roth (FORREST GUMP) is in no hurry to tell the story, which unfolds as naturally as a mountain wildflower. Coming in at just under three hours - Redford's first cut was close to four, the movie so mesmerizes you that your only complaint is likely to be that you wish it were longer.

The film starts with a horrible accident between two young teenage girls on horseback and a large tractor-trailer truck. The movie centers around the two survivors; a girl named Grace MacLean, played with grace by Scarlett Johansson, and Pilgrim, played by six different and incredibly talented horses. Grace loses part of her leg, and Pilgrim is so badly injured that the vet recommends "putting him down."

Grace is the daughter of hard-driving, Manhattan magazine publisher Annie and ever-agreeable lawyer Robert. Kristin Scott Thomas, nominated for an Academy Award for her romantic role in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, is the slowly metamorphosing Annie. Starting out as cold as ice, she transforms into quite a different character. As Robert, character actor Sam Neill imbues the role with just the right mixture of bland but genuine allegiance to his family.

After Kristen Scott Thomas reads in eloquent voice-over the definition of a horse whisperer, Annie calls up Tom in Montana to ask him to help Pilgrim. "Truth is, I help horses with people problems," Tom explains to her. He turns Annie down, which in her best business demeanor she refuses to accept. "Am I being too polite here?" he asks. "Does 'no' in Montana mean 'yes' where you are?"

Soon Annie and a reluctant Grace are off with Pilgrim in tow, crossing the country in hopes of getting Tom to change his mind. This trip gives Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK) one of many opportunities to dazzle us with his exquisite work. As they drive through farmland in the country's heartland, Richardson films them from on high. Their car cuts through the patchwork quilt of fields as the film's score hits one majestic note after another, all overlaid with the chatter of their car radio picking up static-filled, local stations. Richardson is even better with the close-ups than the sweeping vistas. The intricate raindrops on the windshield are one of the many little treats he serves up for us.

"Do they have any signs around here?" Annie asks Grace. "What would they say?" Grace asks looking around at the lovely but remote terrain. "10 miles to big rock. 20 miles to bigger rock."

Although the script does have these occasional bits of humor, it is in the wisdom, in the character development and - yes, Redford fans - in the romance where it is most compelling. With his ruggedly handsome face that speaks of many never-to-be-told mysteries, Redford is an actor for every generation. His little smile is guaranteed to win every heart in the audience in an instant.

The best of the story's simple, wisdom-filled scenes has Annie and Tom reflecting on parts of their lives. Annie says she envies Tom's elderly mother, who is at an age in which she has no more decisions to make and in which she can savor the good decisions in her life as well as the bad ones. During this soul bearing Annie asks Tom how he knew that his long-since divorced wife was not right for him. "Knowing it is the easy part," he tells her. "Saying it out loud is the hard part."

I fell head over heels in love with this powerful but subtle movie. And audiences may again become infatuated with the 61-year-old Redford, proving that age makes no difference when it comes to love.

THE HORSE WHISPERER runs 2:44. It is rated PG-13 for one disturbing accident scene and would be fine for kids around 10 and up.

Copyright 1998 Steve Rhodes

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