"The Horse Whisperer" is less a movie than a model of a movie made from a kit: Shake the box and you can hear the symbols and scenery rattling around in there, ready to be pieced together in an attractive fashion. There's supposed to be a story, too, but it looks like it's missing -- or is this little bent thing supposed to be it? Anyway, once it's all put together, it's supposed to make you cry -- or something.
"The Horse Whisperer" is just the latest example of tab-A-into-slot-B moviemaking to come out of Hollywood, a weeper that's built according to a solid set of rules, the first one being: Never just let 'er rip. Gone are the days when the waterworks could flow cheaply and easily, as when, say, Heidi's little friend finally lurched out of her wheelchair. Today a movie that hopes to make you cry has to be first swabbed down with WASP tastefulness and antiseptic pop psychology: The injured young girl has to rebuild her confidence and her life; the hurt, angry horse has to be retaught trust; the repressed workaholic city-girl mom has to be redeemed by the love of a good cowboy. Those are the bare bones of "The Horse Whisperer," and even the connective tissue is stretched pretty thin. It's the kind of movie where you can't set up the beginning without also giving away the end, because you'd have to be a fool not to know how it wraps up.
There are plenty of dramas that follow trite, "classic" patterns but give you enough characterization -- or at least enough entertaining dialogue -- to pull you through. (Movies like "Good Will Hunting" or 1995's "Dolores Claiborne" come to mind, deeply conventional but solidly built pictures that attempt to give their characters actual lives to inhabit, instead of molding them into stereotypes or, worse, elevating them to noble archetypes.) "The Horse Whisperer" certainly looks graceful enough. Director Robert Redford (along with cinematographer Robert Richardson) gives us lots of amber-gold sunset skies, shimmering fields of grain and glossy horse flanks rippling in slo-mo. But like that other highbrow weeper "The English Patient," it's all this stunning scenery -- and not anything the characters say or do -- that's the big setup for the emotional climax. You could say that Redford's fixation on big-sky vistas is deeply symbolic, their wide openness a contrast to the repressiveness of the workaday lives most of us lead. Yet Redford's approach is its own kind of repression, a suggestion that the feelings of real people are impure and suspect; it's only nature, beautiful nature, that can be trusted, that can put us in touch with our true hopes and desires. Going back to the land is where it's at, and a good way to discover this is to thrust a sizzling branding iron into the tender flesh of a calf and eat a heaping helping of mashed potatoes at the end of the day.
Even though this idea fits neatly into Redford's Sundance Catalog approach to art, it isn't solely his invention. Much of the blame for the movie's emotional and aesthetic torpor has to go to the hugely successful novel by Nicholas Evans on which it is based. Young Grace (the excessively pouty Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of hypersuccessful Tina Brown-like magazine editor Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a kind but maddeningly precise lawyer (Sam Neill), loves nothing more than to go out to the family's country home in upstate New York to ride her horse, Pilgrim. After a horrible riding accident, in which a young friend of Grace is killed (we get to watch, in excruciatingly tasteful detail, the suffering of both horses and their riders), Grace loses part of one leg and Pilgrim, horribly injured and frightened, becomes crazed and unmanageable.
In an effort to save her daughter's flagging spirit by healing her horse, Annie opens up the yellow pages -- to "H" for "Horse Whisperers," I suppose -- and comes across the name of Tom Booker (Robert Redford), a man who's said to have special equine communications skills. She packs her sullen daughter into the Range Rover (natch), attaches a trailer for poor, frothing Pilgrim and drives all the way from Manhattan to Montana, where she is reprimanded for startling the horse with her cell phone, wears a funny sun hat and falls head over Hermis heels for Booker, more or less in that order.
Horses are magical animals, but you wouldn't know it from "The Horse Whisperer." (The movie's credit sequence, in which an ebony horse gallops across glimmering sand, gives us the film's most gorgeous vision, but it owes a big debt to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's imagery from another, much more wondrous, picture about horses, Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion.") There's no chemistry between Redford and the troubled horse; at most you notice him catching the willful animal's eye, fixing him with a kind of cowboy-cum-mystic stare.
Apparently, Redford's channeled-from-the-ghost-of-Gary-Cooper charm is supposed to work on us as well as the horse, but it doesn't even seem to work all that well on the lead actress. That's one possible explanation for the altogether too coolly measured performance of Thomas, normally an astute, sensitive actor. In an early scene, during an angry discussion with Neill, she brushes her hair fiercely as if she were hoping to yank it out by its roots. She's like Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" (another immaculate Redford itude) stuffing that French toast down the garbage disposal. "We're losing her!" Thomas shrieks at Neill during an argument about their daughter. Before she heads out to the land of mountains and majestic steeds, her shrillness is turned up to its highest frequency, and it seems forced. This is meant to exaggerate the dramatic transformation that occurs in her later scenes, where she becomes soft and willowy, more yielding in both appearance and manner, in the far-more-gentle Montana light.
Redford's Booker is the man who changes Annie forever, with his boyish half-smile, the elfin crinkle of his wise, sparkling eyes and his words of wisdom about affairs of the heart, like "Knowing is the easy part. Saying it out loud is the hard part." The pairing of Redford and the younger Thomas is just the latest example of Hollywood's rampant tendency to match older leading men with younger women. I don't object to that kind of casting in every instance: If two beautiful actors have equal charisma, I don't think they necessarily have to be the same age (although I think it's long past time to cast more mature actresses in sexier roles). But there's something desperate about the older Redford that I find troubling. He still has a certain amount of aw-shucks appeal (for those who like that sort of thing, at least), but unlike other actors in his age group -- Sean Connery, for instance, or Nick Nolte in "Afterglow" -- he hasn't acknowledged that with his age, he's taken on a different kind of beauty. He still wants so badly to be the youthful golden boy, and it shows in almost every scene: He's shot like an aging starlet, bathed in a hazy saffron glow. (Thomas, beautiful in her own right, just gets the normal lens.) That bid to soothe his own vanity is an awkward embarrassment, a loud signal that Redford doesn't feel comfortable with who and what he is today.
Which is maybe why he takes on projects like "The Horse Whisperer," a movie in which he can play a legend instead of a man, a movie where he can wear a silver bracelet on his tanned cowboy wrist to show how secure he is in his masculinity. If he were really secure, he might realize that a good melodrama -- and "The Horse Whisperer" is nothing if not melodrama -- is really about freedom, about the chance to connect with some very elemental emotions. It's about being given the freedom to cry even when we know it's silly, instead of being granted a kind of benediction for our tears by way of tasteful mountains, tastefully tragic riding accidents and tasteful epiphanies on the part of troubled characters. Redford seems to have fooled himself into thinking the story of "The Horse Whisperer" runs much deeper than it does. Mr. Ed had more to say.