There's a good movie in The Horse Whisperer. Robert Redford's film is about a girl and her horse--not an unprecedented plot in the history of Hollywood pictures, but when it's done well, the drama in the human/animal relationship doesn't need any boost. Unfortunately, with a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Horse Whisperer also has plenty of room to squeeze in a second, not-so-hot movie about her mom's dubious romance with the guy who retrains the horse. The good movie begins with young Grace (Scarlett Johannson) riding on a snowy morning with her friend Judith. One minute they're giggling about boys. Then, in a terrifying, taut sequence, we see a riding mishap escalate irrevocably into a tragedy where Grace loses both her best friend and one of her legs. Enter Grace's parents, Dad (Sam Neill), a bland but kindly presence, and mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), who's as brittle as if she'd been dipped in liquid oxygen. She's a caricature career woman, a bossy, high-speed New York magazine editor who lives for her job, is rude and condescending to the hospital staff, yet is for some reason too weak to give the order to have Grace's horse, Pilgrim, put down after the accident. Annie is pretty much the reincarnation of the monstrous mother played by Mary Tyler Moore in Redford's directorial debut, Ordinary People. Early on there's a scene where Grace, just back from the hospital, can't bear to eat dinner; after she hobbles away from the table on her crutches, Annie smoothes the rumpled linen tablecloth back into place. It's a small but damning detail. Annie can't stand any imperfection--in a page layout, in her table setting or in her daughter. That's why it's nearly impossible to work up sympathy for Annie, despite the fact that the script has her doing at least some of the "right" things (pulling out all the stops to rehabilitate Grace and Pilgrim, finally giving up her career to get her daughter literally back in the saddle). Redford's camera pins her down like a bug in a specimen box. In contrast, Grace remains as soft and malleable as she appears in the first scene when she tumbles out of bed, sleepy-eyed, fresh from dreaming about her horse. Scarlett Johannson has a wide-eyed, matter-of-fact purity. It's not that she's a pushover; it's that she looks ready to absorb experience while her mother seems poised to chase it away. Grace's sullen rebellion is more than a reaction to the accident. Her coolness toward Annie is established in an early exchange with Judith; the accident forces mother and daughter closer together and escalates the war. You can't help but feel that Annie deserves every one of Grace's poison arrows, even while she's trying her hardest. Clearly, The Horse Whisperer is supposed to accomplish a second rehabilitation, that of Annie's humanity. Enter Redford as Tom Booker, a legendary horse trainer who lives with his extended family on a remote ranch. Despite his assertion to Annie over the phone that he can't help her, she loads the wounded Pilgrim in a trailer and Grace in the back seat and drives from New York to Montana. Booker is a familiar Redford role, the flip individualist. Here he's also the strong, mostly silent type, a little more aw-shucks than usual. (When he finally utters a line, it's a little blast of dry wit.) The rapport between Grace and Booker is never strained or forced; and the scenes with Booker, Grace and Pilgrim, though leisurely, are absorbing and dramatic. When the script has Annie falling in love with Booker, about an hour and a half in, the film goes dead. It's not that nothing happens during the next 45 minutes, but that it feels as if nothing is happening. There's a breakthrough with Grace, a breakthrough with Pilgrim, a breakthrough between Booker and Annie--but every time momentum starts to build, Redford slows it down again with scenery (which should be stunning but ends up looking like a Marlboro commercial); Annie and Booker riding; and family ranching scenes that seem transplanted from a 1950s Western. I'm sure some families really are this wholesome, but also so clean and pressed...like a Tide commercial? Booker's extended family strains credulity. But a larger strain on credulity is Annie's infatuation with Booker. I don't think you can take it as a given in a film that "the woman is going to fall for Redford," especially this woman. Annie remains a mystery to the audience in a way that Booker and Grace do not. In part, Kristin Scott Thomas is not an actress who excels at looking vulnerable or as if she's losing control. And the distrust with which Redford-the-director presents her in the first half of the film makes it nearly impossible for Redford-the-hero to save her in the second half. Redford has taken some flak for being too self-reverential in his direction of himself here, but that's not the only problem.
In the end, The Horse Whisperer isn't primarily a love story or a story about healing and transformation or even a story about choices. It's a story about what people can and cannot do and how nothing can change that. Emotionally, Grace is an I can, and Annie remains an I can't.