Judge Bill Gibron was once known as "The Bad Movie Whisperer."
My little problematic pony.
In the intriguing documentary Buck, famed "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman spends a few minutes discussing his time as a consultant on a major Hollywood film. While glad to have been of service and suggesting most of his input was ignored, he makes it clear that there is broad line between truth and the trumped-up fantasy of fiction. Of course, the rest of this amazing movie concentrates on how Buck himself overcame a childhood of horrific abuse to see the proper way to balance discipline with compassion in his work. No such luck with Robert Redford's redundant The Horse Whisperer. Based on a novel by Nicolas Evans (think Nicolas Sparks with an English accent) and reminiscent of other malady-as-maudlin dramas, it takes several interesting ideas and confounds them in a mix of half-baked conflicts and unrealized emotions. We are drawn in by the premise and the promise of character catharsis. What we end up with is a weeper wearing its heart two feet off its cowboy-chic sleeve.
One day, young Grace (Scarlett Johansson, Marvel's The Avengers) and her best buddy Judith (Kate Bosworth, Beyond the Sea) set out for a horseback ride. A horrible accident leaves the former with a partially amputated leg and a ride that's gone rogue. Apparently, the horse's new attitude is so dangerously severe that there is talk of putting it down. Naturally, Grace's pseudo-supermom Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) will have none of this. Hiring professional trainer and animal therapist Tom Booker (Robert Redford, The Sting), she hopes to cure both her daughter and her steed. Our laid back hero recognizes the complicated connection between the two, understanding that the horse and the child both must heal. In the meantime, he begins falling for Annie, even though she is married to a man (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) she cares for. Still, sparks fly.
Because it can't make up its mind about what it wants to be, because it carries three cumbersome narratives within its otherwise Harlequin Romance revisionism, The Horse Whisperer fails. It's like a cross between The Bridges of Madison County and Equus with just a smidgen of Kid Mummering for good measure. It wants us to wonder at man speaking to animal, child responding to caring, and family facing undeniable odds. But it also wants to drip with dramatic tensions and poorly placed sensuality. We get that most women would want Robert Redford in their bed, but to turn the entire subtext of an otherwise touchy subject into a "will they or won't they" undermines everything. After all, we've just witnessed one of the worst cases of child/animal injury ever, and the sheer force of nature can't really trump said tragedy. So to then argue that the only way to work everything out is a bit of bed hopping just diminishes the other issues involved.
Of course, the acting is aces, as is Redford's sunstroke direction. The film looks lovely and the performance often find the right emotional balance. But just like the old adage argues, you can't have great everything and mediocre story. No matter the level of competence everywhere else, the narrative is what matters and since we never really doubt the outcome (Redford is really going to let this family down?), it's all about the mechanics of getting there. Frankly, we don't care. It's a dull, dragging slog. Redford just can't find a sense of urgency, nor can he completely involve us in Grace's eventual recovery. It's just an inevitability, like death, taxes, and convenience store markups. In the end, you have to measure out your desire to see said celebrities making cow eyes at each other while being both involved and unrequited. The rest is basic bunk.
As part of the eventual transference of all titles to Blu-ray, Touchstone, Disney, and the HD format manufacturers bring The Horse Whisperer home with a fairly decent presentation. The image is excellent, the 2.35:1/1080p offering capturing the luxuriant landscape of the locations involved. Colors are bright and there's only a bit of softness (usually associated with the more romantic moments). As for sound, the score by Thomas Newman balances well with the easy-to-understand dialogue. The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is sharp and clean, easily one of the best aspects of the release. As for added content, we are treated to a behind the scenes featurette, a talk with Redford, a sitdown with Brannaman, and a music video. Not bad, but not the best set of extras ever offered.
For some, The Horse Whisperer is a memory; a memento of a good read, a solid adaptation, and lots of fond, wistful recalls. For others, it's a long shot that never pays off. For this critic, it's back to the betting window.
Guilty. Beautiful, but boring.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
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