By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 22, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Equine flesh rarely looks as magnificent as it does in The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford’s sensual, slo-mo adaptation of Nicholas Evans’ pulpy best-seller about a wounded 14-year-old girl, a driven mom, a traumatized horse, and the Marlboro Man who therapeutically tames them all. The animals in this romantic drama rear up in wild majesty, and when the camera stares into a dark, horsey eye, we feel we’re peering deep into the soul of a creature whose natural intelligence is uncorrupted by human compromises. Very awe-inspiring.

So far, so good. Following Clint Eastwood’s superlative transformation of The Bridges of Madison County from cornball novelette to soaring cinematic love story, I’m a big believer in the power of film to upgrade contemporary literary kitsch. And certainly 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 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 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 The girl is angry and withdrawn, the mother frustrated, the father (Sam Neill) shut out.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), a sort of cowboy shrink who helps ”horses with people problems.” Deciding that he’s the man for them, Annie lassoes girl and horse to her four-wheel-drive wagon, floors it to Montana, presents her case, and watches as daughter heals, Pilgrim calms down, and she herself falls for the charismatic feller with the golden hair. Beautifully backlit as he perpetually is, who wouldn’t?

In the book, Annie and Tom tumble into some rockin’ sex, and ultimately Tom dies an insanely stupid death. In Redford’s much more dignified telling there’s no demise, and Annie and Tom don’t do much more than dance one of those slow, classic movie-symbol-of-sex numbers. And still the movie gets the point across perfectly well: Every creature needs healing in order to get on with the business of living.

Redford — who previously celebrated the grandeur of fish in A River Runs Through It — pays sensitive homage to the wide-open landscape and psychology of the West. 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. Redford and Scott Thomas, while attractive, 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. Surely this sophisticated editor knows the difference between animal lust and true-blue cowboy love. If not, she could just whisper the question to Pilgrim; he knows more than his eyes can say.

The Horse Whisperer

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 164 minutes
  • Robert Redford