Rancho Notorious

Spare the rod, spoil the child: Robert Redford tames women, children, and beasts alike in The Horse Whisperer

The Horse Whisperer
area theaters

Anybody who believes that Barbra Streisand, the film director, spends entirely too much time flattering Barbra Streisand, the long-nailed and trim-legged film star, should get a load of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Directing himself for the first time (if you don't count his alter ego, Brad Pitt, in A River Runs Through It), the tired idol finds a platinum gleam in his dirty blond hair that he clearly hopes will blind us to the 30-year age gap between star and leading lady. Redford further chases off that annoying gadfly, mortality, by rewriting Nicholas Evans's best-selling novel so his heroically adulterous cowboy doesn't have to face that final roundup in the sky.

Of course, even within the parameters of Evans's overheated romantic fiction, the martyrdom of sainted horse tamer Tom Booker was a cheap attempt at two-Kleenex, Bridges of Madison County "tragedy." Besides, the film version makes the notion of a heavenly afterlife redundant; in Redford's vision, the Montana setting is heaven, illuminated with more golden twilight and silvery halos than I've viewed since that wet-dream celebration of a younger Redford, The Natural. To this pristine Arcadia, brittle New York magazine editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) journeys, with an injured daughter and a mad horse in tow. All will be reborn.

Both as director and star, Redford plays God. As Tom Booker, his God vibes sexy (in theory), avuncular, and empathetic. He knows exactly what enactments will heal Annie's stunted passion, daughter Grace's humiliation and guilt, and the horse Pilgrim's fear and rage. As director, Redford's God shows himself to be far less understanding and entirely too patient. After a tense, even shocking start built around Grace and Pilgrim's accident, The Horse Whisperer struggles to achieve any kind of resonant tone. I've never seen Scott Thomas or Sam Neill (as her long-suffering husband, Robert) act with such obviousness--so I reckon the movie is not supporting them, not providing the necessary ballast.

When the film eventually exits New York for Montana, a series of jokes--mostly aimed at silly city slickers--at last settles the audience in their seats. But the supposedly steamy desire between Tom and Annie stays at room temperature, and, again, you can watch every string being pulled. When the two reach for their first clinch, at an appallingly picturesque cattle camp, all I could think about was how the scene was shot: backlit, so that the wrinkled pinch of Redford's mouth could not be glimpsed sucking on Scott Thomas's smooth lips. The script grants the would-be lovers reasons for their lust--Annie early on lost her father and Tom, his cosmopolitan wife. Yet Redford's movie does not breathe life into those reasons; they're never visceral, they never ache.

The slow-hand editing accounts for some of that distance: Scenes universally drag on too long, and the film as a whole weighs in at an obese two hours, 44 minutes. The script also gets in the way, with dialogue that often embraces Hallmark Presentation melodrama. It's like Redford tried to draw these characters' feelings as wide and tall as the scenery, then ran out of colors to paint between the lines. The outlines of gestures are there, but not the emotional content. The MacLeans' problems begin to seem self-evident, trite, and the solutions way too easy. This Horse Whisperer strikes me as a mundane, even simplistic, God. He works in mysterious ways only with the traumatized horse, whose secrets cannot be trotted out so glibly.

For this Pilgrim, though, as for the others, the moral of the story is submission. God the Father, director, and sunlit star does what the weak human father cannot: gentle all the maddened strays--career woman, pissed-off adolescent, rebellious servant--and herd them back inside the family fold. This great heaven is the prototypical rancher's West, with cattle-branding, ropes, and fences. The freedom song hummed by these rich pastures and far-flung horizons turns out to be a siren's call right back to the old corral; this time, the once mulish go willingly.

If you squint really hard, Redford's glowing idealization of this landscape and his own cowboy persona might look like a rueful tribute to the West's mythic power--both within film and society. Americans do continue to cherish the Frontier myth, with its troubling assumptions about male autonomy, human dominion over all, and infinite economic expansion. That idea of heaven does keep us tamed, our behavior bent toward impossible and (self-) destructive goals.

But The Horse Whisperer asks us to be soothed by Tom's relentless will to tame. And Redford seems so cheered by his character's potency that he cannot reject his static, Hollywood hereafter. He knows, as we do, that staying home on this imaginary range means he'll remain a fair-haired boy forever.

 
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