Equine flesh rarely looks as magnificent as it does in “The Horse Whisperer,” Robert Redford’s sensual, slo-mo adaptation of Nicholas Evans’ pulpy bestseller about a wounded 14-year-old girl, a driven mom, a traumatized horse, and the Marlboro Man who therapeutically tames them all.
Redford — who, for the first time, stars in a movie he has also produced and directed — has burned away a lot of the cow chips and compost from Evans’ tale, while class-act screenwriters Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and Richard LaGravenese (“The Bridges of Madison County”) keep the essentials: After a riding accident in which her friend was killed, her horse, Pilgrim, was severely hurt and spooked, and she lost her leg, Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) and her high-powered-Tina Brown-like-editor mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) teeter on terrible terms. The girl is angry and withdrawn, the mother frustrated, the father (Sam Neill) shut out.
Then Annie reads about Tom Booker (Redford), the titular whisperer — a sort of cowboy shrink who helps ”horses with people problems” — and impetuously decides he’s the man for them. And so, lassoing girl and horse to her four-wheel-drive wagon, Annie floors it to Montana, presents her case, and watches as daughter heals, Pilgrim calms down, and she herself falls in love with the charismatic feller with the golden hair. Beautifully backlit as he perpetually is, who wouldn’t?
Redford pays sensitive homage to the wide-open landscape and psychology of the West, switching to a wide-screen format when Annie and Grace arrive in Montana that allows master cinematographer Robert Richardson (”JFK”) to create beautiful vistas. But with the story stripped to essentials — girl falls off horse, girl gets back on horse — all the nuggets of spoken wisdom rattle around with a tad too much space and (at 2 1/2 hours plus) too much length, too. Redford and Scott Thomas, while attractive and well-behaved, never thaw enough to convince us that these two really have any feelings for one another deeper than the kind of site-specific hots endemic to actors on location.