****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras D+
starring Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, Scarlett Johansson
screenplay by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Nicholas Evans
directed by Robert Redford
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Revisiting Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer fifteen years after I last saw it, I am relieved to encounter a film that isn't simply marking time until a climactic moment that was for me a cherished eureka at the movies. Sweet and cinematic if not without flaws, the picture begins with Grace (13-year-old Scarlett Johansson) rising at the crack of dawn to go horseback riding with her friend Judith (Kate Bosworth, billed as "Catherine"). Redford focuses on Johansson's socked feet slinking past her parents' bedroom door, and subsequently draws a lot of attention to legs and feet here--not in a fetish-y way, but as if they're a person's "tell." I misremembered this scene, for what it's worth, as Grace doing something wrong by sneaking out, but in fact her parents are not at all surprised to find her gone by the time they're up and around. Mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) is basically Anna Wintour--her name's even Annie--and Dad, Robert (Sam Neill), is, we infer, the kind of lawyer who does a lot of pro bono work.
It's a deceptively calm winter morning. Grace and Judith stray off course, and Judith's horse loses traction on a snowy hillside. In a bravura bit of montage filmmaking, Grace and her horse, Pilgrim, go tumbling after, putting all four parties in the path of an oncoming 18-wheeler. Trucks + kids + animals--like Stephen King before him, Redford taps into a fear that is hardwired, however specific and modern. Judith loses her life in the accident while Grace loses her right leg. (Legs again.) We know it's the right one because Annie actually asks the doctor, "Which one?" I don't know what I expect from Redford behind the camera, exactly, but this bleakly funny moment simultaneously caught me off guard and seemed quintessential of the Ordinary People director, who, it should be said, has a real gift for ascribing tactless pragmatism to upper-middle-class matriarchs without resorting to grotesquery or making them aggressively unsympathetic. Perhaps it helps having three-named actresses like Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore.
Indeed, The Horse Whisperer has far more in common with Ordinary People than meets the eye. Structurally, they're virtual clones, with Redford's Tom Booker assuming the Dr. Berger role as the person who not only mends Pilgrim's broken spirit but also coaxes sullen Grace back from the proverbial brink. As in Ordinary People, a lengthy denouement, punctuated by a bittersweet monologue from a jilted husband, follows the teenage protagonist's emotional breakthroughs as the picture addresses those marital issues that have been festering in the background since the inciting tragedy. In Ordinary People, it is thought--or at least hoped--that curing the child will cure the parents, a faulty logic somewhat at work in The Horse Whisperer as well, if blunted by the peculiar circumstances in which the MacLeans--Grace, Annie, and Robert--find themselves.
Annie uproots Grace and the disfigured, mad Pilgrim from their New York digs to visit the titular magic man, despite that he's already rejected her over the telephone (a wonderful scene--I do believe our own Walter Chaw once called Redford a great "phone actor"). As they hit the road, the film literally "opens up," its aspect ratio broadening from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1--for Grace and Annie, one supposes, aren't in Kansas anymore. Arriving at the Booker ranch after a tense journey during which Grace's bitterness wears on Annie's last nerve, they manage to ingratiate themselves with Tom, who's reluctant to reward Annie's sense of entitlement but clearly enticed by the challenge Pilgrim, his young master, and even Grace's type-A mother represent. The movie's attitudes are admittedly a bit retrograde--Tom's the horse whisperer, and the woman whisperer, too. He'll break them all in. By the same token, the film has already departed from convention in making the traditionally male workaholic who rediscovers the joys of family a woman, and she displays an ambivalence at the end of the piece that has the whiff of feminism about it.
The Horse Whisperer is postcard-perfect, of course, but it always has one equine eye trained on the human element, and just as the movie encourages its characters to take stock of their lives, so too do DP Robert Richardson's colonized images encourage a thorough inventory of the frame. There's Dianne Wiest, debuting her plump, to-hell-with-Hollywood physique as the nurturing but weary Jane Darwell figure of this Fordian reverie. There's Chris Cooper, bringing flavour to the difficult-to-dimensionalize role of Wiest's husband (and Redford's brother), a lifelong ranch-hand who sincerely can't understand why anyone would want to leave Big Sky country for, say, his wife's dream destination of Morocco. There's Ty Hillman, in his only big-screen appearance to date as li'l horse whisperer, who's transparently nursing a crush on Grace but has learned to emulate the stoicism of his uncle (Redford) and father in interpersonal exchanges.
Hillman is such a natural that it's a shame to see him go the way of T.J. Lowther before him. In fact, his charming scenes with Johansson, in which the two seem to be struggling not to blush, are one of the reasons Grace's big, teary, Oscar-baiting confrontation with her mother sticks out like a sore thumb. "Who's gonna want me like this?" Grace sobs, referring to her gimp leg, and, well, turn your head a few degrees and the question answers itself, doesn't it? Coming to this scene from a contemporary perspective certainly doesn't help, because we know she'll grow up to be a total bombshell; it would take a lot more than a missing limb to break the spell Johansson casts over most heterosexual men these days. It might also be a moment of vanity too advanced for young Grace--though to paraphrase The Virgin Suicides, obviously I've never been a 12-year-old girl, and what I do know from experience is that the disabled grow up fast. Ultimately, I guess I can appreciate it as the sort of honest, selfish conversation--there's no mention of dear, departed Judith--she can't have with anyone else in the picture (telling Tom would only jeopardize his respect for her), and it consecrates the mother-daughter bond in a way that allows the filmmakers to abandon the tension between these two for more fertile terrain without said tension feeling unresolved. I do wish it were a little...subtler, though?
If Wiest's character justifies the Ford comparisons, the movie's infidelity subplot makes the inevitable invoking of David Lean more than just tired shorthand for widescreen vistas and epic running times. The 169-minute The Horse Whisperer is truly Lean-like in its foregrounding of a love triangle on a grand canvas and its adult, sympathetic handling of adultery, with Thomas's and Neill's continental accents driving the point home. (Interestingly, the Nicholas Evans source novel delves even farther into Lean territory with a weather-dictated outcome to the central affair, but Redford bought the rights to the book unfinished and stuck to the considerably more sophisticated ending he envisioned. "I wanted a tougher film," he told interviewer Karen Jaehne.) Tom and Annie gravitate towards each other romantically, though it's not a simple matter of opposites attracting, which would clarify it as a fling for all involved. Tom is an educated man; he went to college in Chicago, where he met his wife, a cellist. They divorced because she missed the city. Annie is a diplomat's daughter, used to being shuffled around and highly adaptable; she could potentially grow to embrace Tom's lifestyle in a way his wife never did. One of the more poignant motifs in the film has Tom spinning the first of Beethoven's sonatas for cello and piano. It's a mourning ritual--the equivalent of pouring a glass of brandy and looking at super8 movies of his ex-wife. And as he grows closer to Annie, he loses his desire to switch on that phonograph.
Eventually, Robert re-enters the picture. No dummy, he, he picks up on the signals Tom and Annie are sending out pretty quickly. In a completely unoriginal yet completely beautiful scene, Tom and Annie dance hand-in-hand to Allison Moorer's "A Soft Place to Fall" while Robert, the classic cuckold, looks on, but the expression on Robert's face is hard to read, and I think that's because it's one of dawning acceptance--not a typical movie emotion. Once Pilgrim and Grace are ready to return to New York, Robert sits Annie down for a heart to heart. "I always knew I loved you more," he begins, and I cannot adequately convey what it was like to hear these words the first time I saw The Horse Whisperer, in the summer of '98. They hit me like a thunderclap. It was the epiphany every cinephile and avid reader is chasing, whether or not they consciously realize it. If you're lucky, you get a few of them spread out over a lifetime: the verbalization of something you always knew but never thought--and, suddenly, another piece of the eternal puzzle. For me, it was the "reachers and settlers" episode of "How I Met Your Mother", done earlier and with infinitely more soulfulness. Of course couples don't love each other equally. That kind of symmetry isn't human.
Robert gives Annie the choice to stay with him or part ways; it may not sound like something that's his to "give," but the point of the gesture is that it's merciful--it lets her know that she doesn't have to worry about him punishing her. He leaves her to her decision. Free again, she asks Tom to go riding with her. He's taken aback, but delighted. While he's saddling up, she peels away in her car--it was a diversion. And so the Wizard of Oz allegory is complete: Pilgrim's brain is no longer scrambled eggs; Grace found her courage to literally get back on the horse; Robert had the heart to cut his wife some slack; and Annie's seemingly bound for home. There's one last motif at play in The Horse Whisperer: Tom performs some sleight-of-hand for the kids--but really to impress Annie, in the way guys start doing everything short of semaphore to attract the attention of the girl they like--whereby he disentangles a complex knot with a flick of the wrist. It's a trick that requires two people, and when Annie drives off at the end of the picture (framed in a close-up gratifyingly reminiscent of Jackie Brown's devastating final shot), she's clutching a limp piece of string. She's incomplete now. But before we assume this means she'll return to Robert (her marriage the real knot Tom so deftly untied), or settle her affairs in New York and go back to Tom, we must remember the story we just saw; sometimes, you lose a leg. The resonance of The Horse Whisperer is that it isn't about healing--it's about scarring.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Buena Vista's Blu-ray release of The Horse Whisperer is a good-news/bad-news proposition. The good news is, the movie was run through a telecine afresh--that dreadful non-anamorphic DVD can finally be retired--and the changing-aspect-ratios gimmick has been more or less preserved. The bad news pertains to the latter: As on the DVD, the film starts off fairly wide already at about 2:1, diminishing the intended effect when the switch to 'scope (here, 2.35:1) is made. I imagine there was hesitation within the studio about potentially alienating the viewer with that much windowboxing for the duration of the first act, but as any fan of "Breaking Bad" knows, half-measures end up satisfying no one.
On the bright side again, the transfer is occasionally phenomenal and always good. DVD made mush of the movie's porous look, but save for those few unintentionally crushed blacks, the image on this disc is supple and detailed. The lush green landscapes are taken to the knife's edge of oversaturation, creating a Technicolor verdancy that really pops, and a coat of fine grain affirms that the overall smoothness of the picture is not a side-effect of DVNR. Similarly impressive, the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track crisply reproduces a tame but full-bodied mix, one that gets what rumble it has from Pilgrim's violent hoofbeats. Voices are acoustically persuasive, especially as Grace and Judith call out to each other in the opening scene, their echoes squelched by the endless tarp of snow.
The BD includes a grab bag of disappointingly flimsy extras. "Production Featurette" (2 mins., SD) is a glorified trailer for the film consisting of B-roll and EPK soundbites; it's useless. "Robert Redford Featurette" (2 mins., SD) is more of the same but does have Redford admitting he thought who he was as a filmmaker and who he was as an actor were incompatible. I wish he expanded on that, but the comment immediately gives way to his co-stars praising his mad directing skillz. "Buck Brannaman Featurette" (2 mins., SD) acquaints us with a younger version of the titular subject than those who saw last year's hit documentary Buck will be used to seeing. The inspiration for Nicholas Evans's source novel, Brannaman served as a technical consultant on the film and briefly--very, very briefly--touches on his philosophies with regards to, er, horse-whispering. Rounding out the platter, the video for "A Soft Place to Fall" (4 mins., SD), plus teaser and full-length theatrical trailers for The Horse Whisperer and a startup batch of HiDef previews for The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Marvel's The Avengers, and the upcoming Who Framed Roger Rabbit BD. Do try to overlook the off-putting cover design--this movie has never had decent copy art to save its life.