Like the film version of The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer is better than it has a right to be. Once again, a director-star (in this case, Robert Redford) has put his own distinctive imprint on a soapy best seller and transformed it into an evocative portrait of rural American life.
The Horse Whisperer is primarily about communicating without words. Tom Booker (Redford), a man of lasting and profound silences, lives on a stunningly picturesque ranch in Montana. His particular gift is tapping into the language of horses, which brings him to the attention of Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), the hyperefficient editor of a Vanity Fair-like, glossy magazine.
The film opens on a crisp winter day when Annie is in New York City restlessly pursuing her career. Her husband, Robert (Sam Neill), and daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), are at their comfortable country house.
Grace goes for an early morning ride with her best friend. They're giggly and enthusiastic, discussing boys, but obviously still more enthralled with their equine companions. There's no indication the day will turn tragic until it suddenly does: While taking a shortcut up an icy embankment, the horses lose their footing, and they all slide right into the path of an oncoming trailer truck. Redford creates this scene as a terrifyingly impressionistic tangle -- pristine snow, limbs askew, wracked facial expressions -- which unfolds like a dream turning inexorably into nightmare.
The battered Grace survives, as does her severely injured horse, Pilgrim. While their bodies heal, both display the residual effects of intense trauma. Annie, whose characteristic prickly determination becomes tempered by a newfound maternal nurturing, packs up the skittish horse and her sullen 13-year-old daughter and treks cross-country to see Tom Booker in the hope that he can restore them.
As they arrive in Montana, the film literally opens up, and there's little doubt that everyone involved is headed for a springtime thaw and renewal.
For two hours and 44 minutes, Redford revels in spectacular vistas, focuses on the profundity of small details, and extols the merits of nonverbal communication.
When Annie and Tom enter a tenuous romance, Redford stages a slow dance that excellently utilizes close-ups (Tom's weathered fingers pressing gently in the small of Annie's back) and makes them seem like the only people on the crowded floor.
But while Redford is marvelous at conveying the texture of a particular life, there isn't much more going on in The Horse Whisperer. Screenwriters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese (who adapted Bridges) have revamped Nicholas Evans' novel into the tale of a glorious and stoic, romantic interlude that, ultimately, only serves to reinforce the status quo.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.