Published May 1, 1998
The Horse Whisperer, directed by and starring Robert Redford, should come with a disclaimer: “Includes no actual whispering.” Or rather, there is one moment near the end when the alleged whisperer, Tom Booker (Mr Redford) does whisper to the horse: “There’s something you have to do, tomorrow, boy,” but it seems a long time to wait for such a pedestrian sort of whispering as that, which any of us might have thought of for ourselves without having a movie made about it. In fact, for most of this picture’s slow two hours and forty minutes we feel a bit like Tom would have felt in the scene where he sits motionless in a field for a whole day, looking at the scenery and waiting for the skittish horse to come to him, if the horse had never come. Like Mr Redford himself, the scenery (filmed on location in Montana and Wyoming) is very pretty but not that pretty.
But then one supposes that there are lots of soccer moms in the land whose idea of a good time is to spend langorous minutes watching Robert Redford staring soulfully into the eyes first of a horse and then of a woman. And there are men, of whom I confess I am one, who will at least put up with it when the woman is the amazingly gorgeous Kristen Scott Thomas. She plays Annie McLean, a hard charging editor of a New York fashion magazine, whose daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson) is badly injured in a riding accident. Somehow we are meant to suppose that Grace’s psychological and physical healing, her troubled relationship with her mother, her parents’ marriage and life, the universe and everything are bound up with getting the horse over its trauma. And Tom Booker, a weatherbeaten but very sensitive cowpoke from Montana and putative horse- whisperer, is just the man to do it.
Even if you buy this extremely shaky premiss, there is a further problem, which is that the central dichotomy of the film between the artificial life of the sophisticated city and the slower, more authentic existence of the cowboy family, is built on sandy foundations. For it is the presumably lavish compensation earned by Annie, surrounded by back-stabbing colleagues at her magazine, which pays for her to play at being a cowgirl for several months while her bloody horse undergoes a course of horse therapy. The cow-people, including Chris Cooper as Tom’s brother, Frank, and Dianne Wiest as Frank’s wife, Diane, can afford to be indulgent and open-hearted to Annie and her horse and daughter because they are being well-paid; Annie and her horse and daughter can afford their yuppie illusion of their own supreme importance in the scheme of things because they have the money to pay.
Still, it must be said that the main characters, especially Annie, are well drawn and that, rather shockingly, the picture does not quite take the standard Hollywood view that marriages, families, friendships and all manner of obligations in the world are but as the grass of the field before the scythe of “feeling.” Nor is Annie’s compulsion to boss people around and make everything right viewed without humor and irony. After the accident, in which Grace’s best friend is killed and she loses part of a leg, Annie gets particularly wound up as—typically, we gather—she takes charge of everything and everybody. Finally her loving and much nicer husband, Robert (Sam Neill), tells her: “You know, Annie, this didn’t just happen to you.”
Later, in a moment of weakness as she is falling in love with him, Annie says to Tom: “The more I try to fix things, the more they fall apart.”
“Maybe you should let ’em fall,” says the old cowboy.
The question is never answered, but she is right. It makes a refreshing change from Hollywood’s usual close adherence to the maxim of William Blake: “curse braces, bless relaxes.” Nor is her restraint seen as merely pathological. Instead it bespeaks a life apart and before which cannot simply be dismissed. We are as surprised as she is when Robert, always a dark horse, refuses to be the bad guy. It’s almost enough to make me recommend the film, at least to those in need of a popcorn fix. But somehow I can’t quite get over Tom’s description of his job: “I don’t break horses; I try to get them gentle. . .I try to help horses with people problems.” Isn’t he just too tweet for words?