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Gambit Weekly A Horse in a Montana County

By Rick Barton

JUNE 1, 1998: 

FILM: The Horse Whisperer

STARRING: Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas

DIRECTOR: Robert Redford

I've got what I think is a great idea for a book: a handsome, weathered, widowed film critic from a Southern city has retired to a small town in Idaho, where he dresses in jeans and flannel, drives a Jeep, backpacks and fly-fishes. His life is quiet, personally satisfying but nonetheless sad somehow. He misses his wife. And then he meets a beautiful blond doctor in her mid to late-30s. She's on sabbatical from her job at an Evanston, Ill., clinic, and she's in the area doing volunteer work on an Idaho Indian reservation. She's also taken refuge from her troubled 15-year marriage to a bookish law professor. Their 12-year-old son has remained with his father in Chicago. The film critic and the doctor have a brief affair that ultimately fails for all the right reasons. In the end, she returns to her family as the film critic knows she must.

My goal for this book is to get extremely rich. I hope to collaborate with Richard LaGravenese on the screenplay for a film to star Paul Newman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Chris Cooper as her husband. In the movie version, the film critic will become a columnist and former war correspondent.

Well, why not? The idea worked for Robert James Waller in The Bridges of Madison County, and the book wasn't even any good. And it worked for Nicholas Evans with The Horse Whisperer. The books made piles of money, and both were adapted for the screen by LaGravenese. If I'm getting just the right fix on the formula here, Newman will have to direct my movie because Bridges and Whisperer were directed by two filmmakers, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford respectively, primarily known for their work in front of the camera (not that both don't have directing Oscars!). Is this a way of saying that Redford's current The Horse Whisperer is revisiting old narrative territory? Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't make the formula pay.

In the film version of The Horse Whisperer, with a different ending than the book, a career-minded mid-thirtyish mother named Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) takes a sabbatical from her job as editor of a big New York magazine after her daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), is severely injured in a horrible horse-riding accident. Annie becomes convinced that if she can save Grace's horse, Pilgrim, which has become crazed since the accident, she also may be able to reinfuse her crippled daughter with a zest for life. We're supposed to deduce that, I gather, from opening footage cutting back and forth between the legs of a horse and the legs of a child. Annie never forthrightly makes herself very clear in this regard. Obviously possessing, as movie characters are wont to do, more money than Croesus, Annie contacts a Montana horse shrink named Tom Booker (Redford), who thinks she's a typical pushy New Yorker and wants nothing to do with her. But she refuses to take no for an answer, packs wacko Pilgrim in a van and morose Grace in the car, and drives west looking for salvation both psychic and metaphoric.

Redford doesn't get us properly grounded with back story. We have to scramble to figure out that Grace's hostility to Annie derives from feeling neglected, feeling that Annie had always put her work before her daughter. And we never get a handle on what's the matter between Annie and her lawyer husband, Robert (Sam Neill). He's kind, gentle and patient, a good father and rich. Of course, he looks like Sam Neill, not like Robert Redford. So pretty soon Annie is getting misty-eyed over Tom, who is kind, gentle, patient, rich (in land and time to go riding, anyway) and has the advantage of looking exactly like Robert Redford. Their hesitant romance is facilitated by Tom's allowing Annie and Grace to move into a house on his ranch and take all their meals with him and the family of his brother, Frank (Chris Cooper), with whom Tom lives. What Annie is paying for all this is never discussed.

At more than two hours and 45 minutes, The Horse Whisperer is needlessly long and sometimes embarrassingly self-indulgent. Screenwriter William Goldman complained years ago about Redford's vanity, and there's little doubt that he loves promoting his own image as the emblem of manly virtue. But he doesn't have to let the camera linger on his own face quite as much as it does. Still, I hasten to grant that this picture works in spite of its own excesses. Robert Richardson's photography is so serenely gorgeous, we don't feel the picture's length the way we might otherwise. The performances are very good by all concerned, young Miss Johansson's work a particular revelation. And though I worry that this picture begins as a film about a damaged child and a damaged horse but ends up being about a difficult romantic choice, darned if I wasn't affected. Everybody here is too good, too calm and too strong. In The Bridges of Madison County, Clint Eastwood's Robert Kincaid was reduced to pleading for his woman while standing in the rain. None of that here. Everybody is sensible, says just the right thing and makes the painful possible. People aren't really like this. But, of course, they ought to be. And that's the way I'll make them in the book I'm going to call The Fires of Idaho Summer.


Self-Destruction

FILM: Character

STARRING: Fedja van Huet, Jan Decleir

DIRECTOR: Mike van Diem

WHERE: Canal Place

Mike van Diem's Character (opening on May 29) won the Oscar this year for best foreign film, but I can't tell you why. Set in 1920s Holland in a time of social unrest, the picture is the story of a young man named Jacob Katadreuffe (Fedja van Huet), who is born out of wedlock to a domestic servant named Joba (Betty Schuurman). Jacob's father is her employer, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), a heartless bailiff who supervises evictions. Dreverhaven also is a banker who specializes in foreclosures and a landlord who enjoys throwing people out of his buildings. As Jacob grows up, he endures many hardships. His mother barely talks to him, though we don't know why. Evidently, we're to understand that she's just kind of quiet. Though he's rich, Dreverhaven only relates to Jacob when there's some possibility of making his son miserable. Jacob is bright, relentlessly hard-working and about as self-destructive as any individual who doesn't actually commit suicide. If there are obviously right and wrong choices, he always makes the wrong one. As a result, we become ever more distant from the characters and ever more frustrated that no one is able to act in a sensible fashion. Why this movie took the foreign film trophy from Bruno Barreto's Four Days in September, I can't begin to understand.


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