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Redford's The Horse Whisperer is emotionally enchanting

The Horse Whisperer

One of the many challenges of adapting a best-selling novel is making it appealing to the fans of the book. Unfortunately, Robert Redford may not have done that, as his film, THE HORSE WHISPERER, alters the ending drastically (from what I have heard). I haven't read the Nicholas Evans' novel, but I can't imagine it being better than this filmed version. Robert Redford is one of the few underrated directors whose work is usually acknowledged as good, but not great. I like to think of Redford as one of the greatest directors working today.

THE HORSE WHISPERER proves just that. His smooth direction is key to the film's tone and emotions, and without bending into the melodramatic, he almost forces tears out of our eyes. Redford has proven a great director before, with such films as his directing debut, Ordinary People (oh yeah, he snagged an Oscar for that one), A River Runs Through It, and the Oscar-nominated Quiz Show (my personal favorite of all of his films). And now, he makes an incredibly moving motion picture that beckons back to the good old days of making motion pictures for the heartfelt emotions (Titanic anyone?). Of course, there are bound to be those cynics who claim that the film revolves around a ludicrous plot, and yes, if you think about it, the plot is slightly corny. But that's not what the film is about. It's about emotions.

THE HORSE WHISPERER begins with a stunning montage sequence of a horse moving gracefully across sandy hills. The main plot is set in motion with a horrific and terrifying scene. Two girls, Judith (Catherine Bosworth) and Grace (Scarlett Johansson), set out to take a peaceful ride through the snowy country. Deciding to take a shortcut up a steep embankment, the two girls find themselves in trouble when Judith's horse can't make it up and slides down the hill, taking Grace and her horse, Pilgrim, with her. A huge 18-wheeler approaches the two girls as their horses try to escape. The attempts fail, and the truck slides over Judith and her horse, while Pilgrim throws Grace off, injuring himself in the process. The PG-13 rating is mostly warranted because of this scene, which is more graphically implied than witnessed (in other words, we think we see more than we do).

Grace is injured badly, and her leg is amputated, while Pilgrim hides under a bridge, grotesquely disfigured. Grace's parents, Annie and Robert MacLean (Kristen Scott Thomas and Sam Neill), race to the hospital, where they are faced with a decision: put the horse to sleep, or let him suffer in pain. Under so much pressure, Annie recommends that they keep the horse alive. A while later, Annie visits Pilgrim, who seems to peer into her soul. Annie decides that she can't kill the horse, but help it heal, as it may aid in healing her daughter. Grace, meanwhile, is struggling through ridicule from her peers and depression. Assisted with a prosthetic limb and crutches, she struggles to do the simplest of tasks, like walking up stairs. Annie begins to lose all hope when she hears about a man in Montana--a horse whisperer. Tom Booker (Robert Redford) first declines her offer, but being so determined, Annie picks up and leaves her husband and work to meet with Tom, taking Grace and Pilgrim with.

While this may sound a little corny, it's played out seriously, and it works beautifully. Arriving in Montana, Annie pleads with Tom to take a look at Pilgrim. He accepts, only to find a horse with seriously mental and emotional problems. How can he figure this? Not by whispering, as the title may suggest, but by watching Pilgrim's every move, and judging it as a sign of communication. Horses have a unique gift that only few animals have. If you have ever touched or ridden a horse, you know of the love and care that they give. It's a special thing when a horse bonds with its owner, and THE HORSE WHISPERER flaunts the connection between animals and humans continuously. If you love animals, as I do, you are more likely to love this film than not. An animal's enduring trust can be something no human could ever give. Of course, the film's only flaw lies in the relationship that ignites between Annie and Tom. Tom has suffered a divorce from the woman he loved, and he is unsure whether to try it again. Annie is married, but can't contain the love that soon grows for this man of the country. The only problem is that because of Tom's wariness, he is hesitant to get involved with her, and the romance is left smoldering instead of bursting into flames on screen. But this really only emphasizes the connection that is made between Grace and Tom, and Tom and Pilgrim.

As aforementioned, the ending of the novel is changed in its translation to the big screen, but the change made is for the best. Instead of sinking into melodrama, it turns into a character-driven drama that skillfully deals with many subjects at once. The screenplay, adapted by Richard LaGravenese and Eric Roth, contains a lot of humor that lightens things up. Most of the humor comes from Booker's subtle personality and dry wit and MacLean's city-adapted mannerisms. Nearly all the humor pays off, and the audience will find themselves laughing as much as crying. But on top of the seemingly heavy drama, Redford stands proud, holding everyone back from venturing into gagging, sappy romance. Redford's direction is some of the best I have seen for a long time, and hopefully should earn him another Oscar nomination. If not, then something is wrong in the state of California. Keeping things slowly paced, we get to experience the visual palette that he has provided for us, sort of the way Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many scenes are obligatory, but we relish them, nonetheless. And it's mostly all due to one simple reason: cinematography.

I have one rule that I apply to all the films I see (one of my many rules): if the plot, characters, acting, and direction is awful, but the cinematography is excellent, I will give a positive review of the film. This is the one reason that I think David Fincher is the best director working today. Cinematography, for me, is the most important aspect of any film because it's the one thing that distinguishes films from plays or novels. THE HORSE WHISPERER's camera work is exquisite, capturing the luscious scenery like eye candy. Filmed by Oscar-winner Robert Richardson, the film contains some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever captured on celluloid. And he doesn't just limit himself to the countryside. Richardson knows how to film actors, capturing small details that other people may think unnecessary. I can't emphasize this enough: if this film does not win (that's right--win) the Best Cinematography Oscar, there is no justice in the world.

Robert Redford has done an incredible job in presenting this story--not just story-wise or technical-wise, but with top-notch actors who flesh out the characters completely. This is the first time Redford has directed a film in which he has performed in, and he has done something that Mel Gibson and Quentin Tarantino could never do (the only other successful one that comes to mind is, of course, Kenneth Branagh). Redford succeeds as both an actor and director; he almost forces us to like Booker, and yet we begin to connect with him as he connects with the horse. The astonishing sequences between Redford and Pilgrim are the best in the film. The dramatically energized scenes contain more emotion than some movies in their entirety. Not to be outdone is Kristen Scott Thomas, the nominated actress from the much-acclaimed The English Patient. While her performance in that film was vastly overrated, Thomas exerts the exact amount of emotion and confusion that we expect from this character. Her growth is slow and gradual, and almost mimics the horse as she comes to term with her situation. But more importantly is Scarlett Johansson, the most complex character in the film. At times, she reminded me of Sarah Polley in The Sweet Hereafter, and both compare equally. Johansson gives an Oscar-caliber performance that deserves recognition. This is one of the best performances you will likely see this year, and she now joins the ranks of young actors that exceed expectations (also on the list is Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Natalie Portman, Anna Paquin, and a couple others). Sam Neill remains in the background for most of the film, but his scenes with Thomas are exciting because Neill is not portrayed as the villain of the film, as some would like to think. He's a logical, smart human being, and his final talk with Thomas is heartfelt and gratifying. Supporting actors Dianne Wiest and Chris Cooper are both very good in their roles, but again, it's Johansson who steals the film.

THE HORSE WHISPERER is rated PG-13 for a disturbing accident scene and some brief profanity. THE HORSE WHISPERER flies along at two hours and forty-eight minutes, and it almost seems too short. I heard the original cut was around four hours long, and I really wouldn't have cared. While the film does contain it's share of flaws, they are quite insignificant to hurt it's power. Some of the images are still stuck in my head, days after seeing it. The music by Thomas Newman is simplistic but effective. At the beginning, I could almost hear the Titanic theme in my mind. But after a while, the music became appropriate, underscoring every scene with a simple, country song. This is likely to be one of the best films of the year, and being into May already (with the summer season coming around the corner), you are probably unlikely to see another one like this for a while. Who knows? Maybe The X-Files will surprise us (as it should).

**** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews