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"The Horse Whisperer"

by Karen Jaehne

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In this magnificent blend of heartbreaking performances, Robert Redford has gathered a handful of our favorite American myths and made them new: the lonely cowboy, the happy family of the plains and dysfunctional family of the city, the working woman, the lost but savvy child, and the call of the wild. His heart believes man should measure himself against nature, but he manages to be fair about our dreams of cities. There is a wonderful scene with the ensemble gathered at an old fashioned dinner table eating mashed potatoes, where Dianne Wiest, the disciplined homemaker, still dreams of going someday to Morocco, as her husband offers a vacation to Idaho. The look that Kristin Scott-Thomas gives her - from the nosebleed pinnacle of a career woman - says, how can this be?

The distance between city and country, between English femme fatale and American wife, between horses and fax machines, is examined with empathy and humor. Nobody comes away without a broken heart, but the increase in wisdom and self-knowledge exacts a steep price. Redford manages to make us believe it all then leaves us in tears. It is a film that is sculpted out of very primitive and unforgiving stone, and the few gliches get swept away in the sprawling Montana landscapes.

"The Horse Whisperer" is Redford's very special hommage to a part of the West that is vanishing - the family ranch. It is also a portait of how the Montana mountains - God's Country, as it's called by those who believe in God - liberate the human spirit and restore belief in ourselves, if not in a higher power.

Out of a story about a mother and daughter taking a wounded horse on a journey to the West, the film of "The Horse Whisperer" surpasses the book by a mile, and it's possibly the best movie Robert Redford has ever made with and about horses. That covers a lot of celluloid.

Nicholas Evans wrote with an Englishman's sharp eye and taste for research about everything from magazines covers to branding calves, and thus mapped out the terrain for a melodrama. It is, after all, the heartbreaking story of an irretrievable loss, when 13 year old Grace has a ghastly accident on her horse, costing the lives of the other rider and her horse, plus the 18-wheeler that hit them. Grace escapes, minus one leg. The horse has gone completely mad. Somehow Annie connects the life of the horse to her daughter's loss of will, and she sets out with the courage that only a mother could understand to set things straight. Of course, she comes face to face with herself and discovers the potential for true passion.

Because he changed the ending, Redford may offend the millions of fans who made this a blockbuster novel. But he did the right thing for a more honest film about doing the right thing for your family.

There is no such thing as a horse whisperer. The term is a case of poetic license, but there are people who train horses and people the way Redford does in the film - in the role of Tom Booker, which fits him like a Stetson. "I don't help people with horse problems," he says. "I help horses with people problems."

At one point I was reminded of a few lines from Annie, Get Your Gun: "I love you in buckskin/and clothes that are homespun. / But I love you longer, stronger/ where your friends don't tote a gun." It's a very typical reaction to dealing with varmints in boots, and it's usually the wry approach of modern Westerns.

Redford takes the West and, in fact, Hollywood as part of the West quite seriously. He respects what everybody is supposed to be doing and lends dignity to the process of making films. Unlike most modern directors, he is unafraid of big emotions, which allowed him to project a sense of loss on the entire story he told - from Manhattan to Montana. He shaped an honest film about desire and an even more honest family drama that can be seen by everybody in the family without being shortchanged. That's no small accomplishment.

Finally - a movie you can take your mother to!

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