Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Clip-Clopping Along

By Susan Ellis

MAY 26, 1998:  About a year ago one of our writers went out to Shelby Farms for some horseback riding. She returned jubilant from the experience but complaining of a sore backside. I think of this now, having seen The Horse Whisperer, and can sympathize – The Horse Whisperer can be a real pain in the … well, you get the picture.

The Horse Whisperer, based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Evans and directed by and starring Robert Redford, is a bit of propaganda, selling the healing powers of the land and of one man. The parties in need of this salve are the MacLean family and a horse by the name of Pilgrim. Thirteen-year-old Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) has met with a terrible tragedy involving snow and an 18-wheeler that cost her a leg, her best friend, and her feeling of worth. The accident has also thrown her well-heeled parents, magazine editor Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and lawyer Robert (Sam Neill) and mangled her horse, Pilgrim, both physically and spiritually. As Grace disintegrates, Annie decides the key in helping her daughter lies in helping Pilgrim.

Through her research, Annie comes upon the name Tom Booker (Robert Redford), who has been proclaimed a “horse whisperer,” who can magically tame any horse through some rather unconventional methods. Annie tracks down Tom at his ranch in Montana and asks him to come to New York. He refuses, so Annie crams Pilgrim into a trailer and Grace into a Range Rover and takes them to him.

The transfer from New York to Montana marks a change in the movie. Where it was once bleak, stifling, at times gory, and tense (and more grabbing), it now spreads out and exudes warmth. The scenery is gorgeous (shot by longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson). There are snow-capped blue mountains, endless expanses of green and gold fields uninterrupted by homes or Blockbusters, and roads that loop around for those apparently not in a hurry. This is God’s country, after all, and his chief soldier is Tom, a rough-hewn cherub with an age-worn face that speaks miles of understanding and a wealth of golden hair that, when hit by the sun just right, forms a halo over his head.

Kristin Scott Thomas takes a shine to Redford.
Tom’s approach to Annie and Grace is something like a therapist’s. He’s not going to give answers, he’s going to make them find them for themselves. He gently pushes them out of their stressed-produced confines through the simple pleasures of a simple life, such as branding cattle and big family dinners complete with heaping mounds of mashed potatoes.

With Pilgrim, Tom’s more active. He has the horse wade through water, makes him trot around a pen, and drags him here and there to work out Pilgrim’s demons. He takes on the horse one-on-one, kneeling before him and looking him in the eye as if he has the ability to go one better than Dr. Doolittle, not just by talking to the animal, but by reaching its soul.

It won’t be giving anything away to say that Tom’s acts of kindness work; you figure that out from the start. Grace gets her confidence back, and Annie, the big-city woman, discovers that she could get used to life without a cell phone and she takes a shine to Tom. As his sister-in-law (played by Dianne Wiest) says, “He’s got a gift from heaven above – but he’s just a man.”

If you buy this “just a man” concept, then you’ll buy The Horse Whisperer. It’s a romantic notion identical to the one brought forth by Clint Eastwood in his adaptation of the also much-loved, sappy novel The Bridges of Madison County. This idea is of the lone wolf who can grab onto a woman’s heart only for a moment, but firmly enough to leave a lasting impression. There are certain requirements for just a man. First of all, he must look good in jeans. Secondly, he should have some sort of manly job, such as cowboy or National Geographic photographer. He must be put in some natural setting – a field of wheat will do. And, for some inexplicable reason, he must always, always wear a silver bracelet. This love ’em and leave ’em (but leave ’em happy) ideal was written, of course, by males, and it is a bunch of hooey. Most women want a for-keeps man, one who will be there to cook dinner and help them move furniture. But that’s a whole different movie.

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