After opening with a brief dream sequence, the film shows upper-crust adolescent Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) preparing to go for a ride on Pilgrim, her beloved horse. Everything is too idyllic: It's clear that something bad is going to happen, and indeed it does. In a freak accident, both horse and rider are horribly injured.
The lower half of Grace's right leg needs to be amputated; Pilgrim should be euthanized. But rejecting conventional wisdom, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Grace's strong-willed mother, refuses to have the horse put down without Grace's consent. And so he lives. Meanwhile the daughter's psychological recuperation from her surgery is far from smooth. Robert (Sam Neill), her lawyer father, tends to coddle her; the far more brittle Annie, a high-powered magazine editor, seems to have taken the notion of tough love to heart.
When Grace finally goes to visit Pilgrim, she is further traumatized by his psychological problems and physical disfigurement. (The sheer insanity of Annie and Robert taking her to the stable without first warning her about her horse's condition is acknowledged in the dialogue but never really explained.)
The unflappable Annie sets about directing the resources of her magazine staff to the task of researching equine rehabilitation. When she sees a picture of grizzled, handsome Tom Booker (Redford) -- a so-called "horse whisperer" -- she inexplicably fixes on him as her one salvation. Over Booker's objections, Annie packs up Grace and Pilgrim and drives them to his isolated Montana ranch to enlist the horse whisperer's aid in bringing Pilgrim around.
There is one possible explanation for Annie's behavior, though the film doesn't acknowledge it: That grizzled, handsome picture of grizzled, handsome Tom Booker doesn't so much engage Annie's maternal instincts as her romantic yearnings. And, sure enough, Annie and Tom are pretty shortly headed for some steamy clinches, even though the movie makes it look like a total surprise to Annie.
Basically The Horse Whisperer combines the family psychodrama of Ordinary People (1980), Redford's Oscar-winning directorial debut, with the middle-aged romance of The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which was scripted by Richard LaGravenese, who also cowrote the new film. "Middle-aged romance" may not be an entirely fair description: "July-November romance" would be more accurate, as Redford is pretty much past the "middle" that Scott Thomas hasn't quite reached. Like Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, the star has the ability to pack on the years without losing his romantic appeal. Still, for many there will be something off-putting about the age difference.
But a bigger problem for the film derives from Redford's curious notion of his own image. After Quiz Show and -- for all its flaws (essentially its final third) -- Ordinary People, it's clear that the man is an intelligent director. But as a producer and a star, he's always shied away from portraying negative characters -- or even depicting characters with negative qualities.
If there's anything that grows cloying during The Horse Whisperer's leisurely, slightly less than three-hour running time, it's the sheer wonderfulness of Booker. Annie is often intolerable and irritating; Grace is troubled; and Robert -- well, Robert just seems like a wimp. But Booker is Mr. Macho Self-Assurance, with a contempo glaze of Self-Effacing Male Liberalism. The guy simply doesn't do anything even mildly wrong or unlikable or flawed. It's a curious contrast to the film's portrayal of Annie, who, in contrast, gets the monopoly on bad traits -- echoes (again) of Ordinary People.
The Horse Whisperer may appeal to teenage girls with horse fetishes or to swoony Redford fans in need of a fix. But at the final accounting, it's nothing more than a very long movie about someone, literally and metaphorically, having to get back up on a horse.
The Horse Whisperer.
Directed by Robert Redford. Written by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Nicholas Evans. Starring Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johansson, and Sam Neill.