Review: 'Horse Whisperer' no Degas at the races

May 21, 1998|By Jason Myers

Jason MyersReview: 'Horse Whisperer' no Degas at the races

The wonderful and enchanting "Degas At the Races" exhibit featured at National Art Gallery includes several sketches and smaller paintings leading up to one of the artist's masterworks, "Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey."

The viewer gets the uncanny sensation of being part of the organic growth of art. We sense that we are witnessing the utter anatomy of the thought process of Degas, one of the great Impressionists. The final canvas is huge and haunting, depicting the tortured, trampled body of a man fallen from his horse.

"The Horse Whisperer," the latest from actor-producer-director Robert Redford, begins with equally intimate violence. As Grace (Scarlett Johansson) and Judith (Catherine Bosworth) ride, Judith's horse hesitates upon a climb, eventually tumbling backward. The landscape is so beautifully isolated that the viewer is quite startled to see a tractor-trailer barreling up what is apparently a road. Redford frames the ensuing collision and carnage with a jeweler's modernism, employing quick edits and overlaps. This lends the film a bracing energy.


Judith dies. This has little impact since we have hardly met her before her fatal fall. More significantly, Grace loses part of her right leg. As her reserved parents, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Robert (Sam Neill), lament their legless daughter, Redford returns us to the scene of the crime. We see Pilgrim, Grace's horse, impaled by part of the truck's windshield, yet still running and neighing.

"The Horse Whisperer" is, of course, about horses, but more so than those wanting to gaze at Robert Redford might think or hope. The film marvels at their mystery, their power, their animal grace. Horses, even - perhaps especially - in the wild, are majestic and athletic creatures.

They are the logical complement to Degas' human studies of ballerinas. The last room of the exhibit displays some of Degas' last work, among which are some bold, brilliantly colored pastels.

"The Horse Whisperer" likewise boasts a potent palette. Annie decides to take Grace, a typical sullen teenager made more cynical and sarcastic by her tragedy, and Pilgrim to Montana for a session with Tom Booker (Redford), a professional horse whisperer. The vistas the viewer encounters out in Big Sky country are so splendid they prompted the two women sitting behind me continually to whisper to each other, "Look at that," as if the other were nodding off.

Which is not an unlikely occurrence. "The Horse Whisperer" is long (almost three hours), and I would be lying if I did not call it slow.

Reticent Redford

Redford is an actor as reticent as the character he portrays here. Tom's seriousness calms Pilgrim, reassures Grace, and, of course, turns on Annie. Annie escapes to Montana as much for herself as for her daughter and horse. She feels the pleasant platitudes of her marriage to Robert smothering her. All that ranch oxygen must be overwhelming and liberating.

If only they could be so for the viewer. Screenwriters Eric Roth and Richard LaGravanese have done a quite admirable job of adapting the book, displacing almost all of its sentiment and melodrama. Scott Thomas gives a fine and fetching performance, and I was especially charmed by Diane Wiest, who plays Tom's sister-in-law. She is an actress of such resource and humor: guarding over a warm batch of cookies, explaining her desire to vacation to Morocco as her husband, Frank (Chris Cooper), promises that they may go to Missouri.

Redford is a very skilled director, and his film is a plush and polished piece. "Quiz Show" had such intellectual clarity, though; "Ordinary People" had emotional intensity; "A River Runs Through It" had narrative lyricism. "The Horse Whisperer" has none of these.

Talking to Tom, Annie says she envies his mother because her life has been lived and she can now settle into predictability and peace. Annie fears all the blood, sweat and tears that lie ahead for her. Honey, look at the movie around you. It's difficult to imagine more predictability or peace. (Except perhaps at the Degas exhibit.)

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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