National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

A Touching Fable in Cattle Country

The Horse Whisperer falls short on reality, but saves itself with sincerity and passion


June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 1:00 PM


Almost since the beginning of recorded history, cities have been depicted as corrupters of human nature and sources of moral confusion. By contrast, living in the country has been seen as simpler and more virtuous because people there remain connected to their physical and emotional roots.

Ever since the 1960s, these ideas have been especially popular with a certain segment of the suburban upper-middle class even though farming is now more capitalistic agribusiness than a righteous tilling of the soil. The Horse Whisperer, based on Nicholas Evans' best-selling novel, takes these notions very seriously. A whiff of fresh air and immersion in the wide-open spaces are presented as a sure-fire tonic for uptight city slickers.

It's winter, and 14-year-old Grace McLean (Scarlett Johansson) loves to go riding. The movie begins with her and her best female buddy saddling up at dawn in an upscale Connecticut suburb. But the snow is slippery, and a freak accident with a truck results in the death of her friend. She herself has to have her leg amputated, and her beloved horse, Pilgrim, is so maimed the local vet (Cherry Jones) declares she's “never seen an animal with these injuries still breathing.” Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), is a British born, workaholic magazine editor. A bossy control freak, she ignores the vet's advice and refuses to have the horse put to sleep.

Grace is unable to adjust to her disability and takes it out on her parents. Her lawyer-father, Robert (Sam Neill), makes excuses for her, but her mother tries to force her to cope. These differences put a strain on their marriage.

When Grace is taken to see Pilgrim, the sight of the horse's physical and psychological damage is more than she can bear. Annie sees Pilgrim's healing as the key to her daughter's recovery, and she uses her magazine's resources to track down a “horse whisperer,” Tom Booker (Robert Redford). He belongs to a small group of trainers who “can see into the creature's soul and soothe the wounds they find there.”

Tom tells Annie on the phone he can't help her. Ever the can-do executive, she won't take “no” for an answer. She packs up Grace and Pilgrim and heads out to Tom's Montana ranch, which he works with his brother (Chris Cooper) and sister-in-law (Diane Wiest).

Things look bleak for the McLean family. Pilgrim is a danger to everyone with whom he comes into contact, and Grace fights her mother and her over-bearing manner every step of the way. “You act like we work for you,” she complains during one of their many fights.

‘I help horses with people problems.’

Booker is a cross between an old-fashioned, rugged cowboy and an in-touch-with-your-feelings 1990s therapist.

But Booker is a healer of both animals and humans. “I help horses with people problems,” he tells Annie, in describing his approach. He's a cross between an old-fashioned, rugged cowboy and an in-touch-with-your-feelings 1990s therapist.

Although we don't ever hear exactly what he whispers to the horse, Pilgrim slowly begins to trust him. At the same time, Tom connects with Grace, helping her to build self-esteem as she does chores in the stables and learns to drive a pick-up truck.

Annie has trouble turning over her daughter and her horse to Tom. She's too used to being in charge. She also tries to edit her Manhattan-based magazine from Montana and has trouble admitting there's anything wrong with her high-pressured lifestyle.

Eventually, she too begins to unwind. Tom takes her riding and teaches her how to brand a heifer. She's lonely for adult companionship and a long way from home and her husband. Soon sparks are flying between her and the horse whisperer. Each acknowledges the attraction, and there are many longing glances and a few tender embraces.

When Annie's husband makes a surprise visit, the atmosphere gets tense. But both Annie and Tom have a quality in short supply in most Hollywood films — moral intelligence. The damage to all parties concerned from an adulterous affair and/or a divorce is apparent, and they don't give in to temptation. In this regard, director Redford (Ordinary People and Quiz Show) and screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges of Madison County) have improved on the book, which was more overtly sexual.

For all its high seriousness, The Horse Whisperer is sentimental at its core. There are several emotionally uplifting scenes, and some in the audience may be moved to tears. But no one should mistake its sensitivity and visual beauty for a realistic dramatization of the issues or people involved.

Tom is too good to be true. Although psychologically vulnerable, he has no character flaws. He's more a romance novel fantasy figure than a real person with a specific set of skills.

Montana ranching is also depicted as a too perfect, idyllic way of life. Raising cattle is never shown as the tough, risky, nitty-gritty business that it is. Instead it seems to be a kind of wholesome, back-to-nature, work therapy that brings people together. Even more inspiring is Tom's family who exudes an earthy harmony in its relationships that rat-race driven city-dwellers and suburbanites like the McLeans can only envy.

The Horse Whisperer presents life and its problems as we would like them to be rather than as they really are. But so what? It's the kind of movie Hollywood does very well. There's a sincerity and passion in its storytelling and its heart is in the right place. We should be grateful for small pleasures.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.