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The Horse Whisperer: Beautiful things happen in Redford's Montana

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Robert Redford.

Written by Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenesse.

Starring Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Scarlett Johannson, Sam Neill, and many horses.

No wonder Titanic made so much money - during first five months of 1998, there has not been a single really good movie. Finally, one has arrived: Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer is the best film of the year so far, at least in the fictional category - Everest is perhaps a touch more fun.

A mother (Scott Thomas) takes her daughter (Scarlett Johannson) and her daughter's horse, both traumatized by an accident, to rural Montana, to be cured by a horse doctor (Redford). That's it, really, but it's a pleasure to watch a movie with a smart screenplay such as this one. It has quite an impressive pedigree, co-written by Eric Roth (screenwriter of Forrest Gump) and Richard LaGravenesse (The Bridges of Madison County), and it shows in the uncommon degree of intelligence and perception.

Redford's direction is textbook, using the most effective use of filmmaking techniques, with each shot precisely placed and having a distinct purpose. The opening sequence of a horse running down a snowy slope is visually stunning, and the rest of the movie excels in storytelling, both through sharp dialogue and visual means. The film is carefully paced, and doesn't feel long at 2 hours and 40 minutes. Many plot strands - human relationships with horses, a culture clash story, a romance, a travelogue, and more than a few elements of a modern western - are intertwined seamlessly.

Technically, the film is impeccable: it is spectacularly shot with gorgeous cinematography, including breathtaking shots of the Montana wilderness. Both sets and costumes look absolutely authentic. The score is excellent as well, fusing together modern tones and country music. Redford's handling of the logistics of filming complex action with that many horses (the main horse alone is played by six separate ones) is also extremely impressive.

Redford the actor doesn't fare quite as well, perhaps because it is the first time he has to work with Redford the director. He seems unable to make up his mind whether he wants to play a romantic lead, with emphasis on small telling details - glances, touches, semi-smiles with the corner of the mouth - or a mythical figure, straight out of John Wayne's repertoire. Each of these halves would be fine by itself, but they don't co-exist that well.

Combining these disparate halves would have been impossible if not for Kristin Scott Thomas. Hers is an utterly amazing performance, which works both as an archetype of an overworked, career-targeting city dweller, and as a very specific, and very human, woman. As a matter of fact, after seeing Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient, and here, I suspect there are no limits to her acting range. An aside: in the early scenes, when she's a high-strung New York magazine editor, I imagined her, with deep-set eyes, clenched teeth, and square jaw, in some sort of a sci-fi action film, battling aliens alongside Sigourney Weaver.

While not great, The Horse Whisperer is the first good movie of 1998. In the middle of the film there is a sequence of Redford and Scott Thomas riding together across the Montana pastures. It is the most cinematically electrifying sequence I've seen since, I'd say, Titanic.