Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Horse Whisperer (1998)

Dir. Robert Redford
Starring: Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, Dianne Wiest 

I remember the satirical online magazine The Onion once publishing a list of the "Top-Selling Books of 1998". Up at number one (above ‘How I Grew Up Covered In Me Da’s Vomit In Ireland’ and ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Reprehensible People’) was ‘The Quiet, Compassionate Country Man With A Windburned But Handsome Face Who Was Kind To The Widow And Her Daughter And Always Spoke Respectfully To The Symbolic Livestock’. I wonder what they could be referring to…? 

The novel The Horse Whisperer was actually published by English author Nicholas Evans in 1995. Three years later it was released as an epic (i.e. 2¾ hour long) movie directed by and starring Robert Redford as Tom Booker, the aforementioned quiet, compassionate country man with a windburned but handsome face. He works alongside his brother (Chris Cooper) on the family cattle ranch in remotest Montana, and he has an uncanny ability to soothe and handle horses.

He comes into the story through an accident. The MacLeans are a very well-to-do East Coast family. Father Robert (the great Sam Neill) is a lawyer, and mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a magazine editor. With such high-powered jobs a lot of pressure is placed on the shoulders of their only daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson). Her one release is riding her horse, Pilgrim. And then, one icy morning, there is a terrible accident. Grace’s best friend Judith (Kate Bosworth) and her horse are killed outright. Grace and Pilgrim survive, but are horribly scarred, both inside and out. Grace loses the lower half of her leg; Pilgrim is wounded and suffers a personality shift, becoming angry and uncontrollable. Annie fixates on the idea that the future well-being of horse and girl are linked, and researches cures. She comes across references to Booker as a “horse whisperer”. When he refuses to come to New York to see Pilgrim, she loads up the horse and a sullen daughter and drives cross-country to Montana to find him. 

Life in Montana differs radically to the life the MacLean’s have lived in New York. The icy blues of the snow are replaced with the warm yellows and greens of the expansive rolling pastureland. Life is simple and homely: Tom’s sister-in-law Dianne (Dianne Wiest) uses recipes for cooking, not jarred sauces. There is a warmth around the hospitable Bookers that is lacking from the MacLeans – particularly Annie. She is a glacial ice queen. Arriving at the hospital following Grace’s accident she takes charge. When told that Grace will lose a leg, she replies “which one?” As if it matters. But she is analysing, reacting intellectually rather than emotionally. The MacLeans are a small unit of three, and even then they don’t interact with each other particularly well. The Bookers, working in harmony together, where everyone has a specified role from the oldest down to the youngest, are a complete contrast. They engage with the local community, where everyone is ready and willing to lend a hand. They practice social cohesion. Around the dinner table they are visibly discomfited by the outspokenness of the New Yorkers. 

Yes, it’s an East Coast meets Midwest culture clash. And Annie is about as far East Coast as she can be – she’s British. The daughter of a diplomat, she has never had a fixed home. You may scoff, but I think that what Lawrence Durrell referred to as “a sense of place” is important. Going away to university I felt better supported having always lived in one house and knowing where I was from, as opposed to those whose families had constantly moved around. I thought there was a clear difference that could be seen in the two types of people. The former we more grounded – but maybe could be accused of limited ambition as a result. Or maybe I am just extrapolating from my own experiences too much! The MacLeans are the latter sort of people: high achievers with high expectations. The Bookers are the former. They know their Montana land and they love it. Dianne has a dream to visit Morocco, but she accepts that it will probably never happen. Tom was once married to a girl from Chicago, but her heart was in the city and his was in the country, and so the relationship could never work. 

History repeats itself as country-boy Tom and city-girl Annie begin to feel an attraction to each other. Just as Pilgrim starts to respond to Tom’s care and attention, so too do Grace and Annie, melting under the warmth of the Montana welcome they receive. Annie begins to experience a sense of freedom, a view of another way of life she had never before considered. As a woman she wants to stay with Tom; as a mother she knows she must support Grace. The surprise arrival of her husband – the very morning after she and Tom kiss, naturally – brings this home to her. 

The Horse Whisperer wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I thought it was meant to be this great romance; in actual fact there’s very little of that in there. Tom rests his hand on Annie’s calf while helping her into her saddle, he touches her finger while playing cat’s cradle, they kiss… that’s it. Compared to another film about an unsatisfied wife and mother meeting a quiet, compassionate country man with a windburned but handsome face – The Bridges of Madison County – it is all very chaste. No fucking on the linoleum here. One might say that Tom and Annie’s dance is, if anything, more erotic however. The grasping interplay of hand over clothing, the press of two bodies against each other – this is sex by proxy 

But what there is is an expanse of exquisite landscape rippling away to the mountains, horses galloping through free-slowing streams and up to high vantage points to watch the sunset. As director Redford gets a completely different feel out of this made-for-Cinemascope scenery than he does from the internalised suburban protagonists of his Ordinary People. Though there is, of course, Grace’s cathartic tear-filled break-down at the end. It seems that a good cry can pretty much solve any problem. 

I liked the movie. Less for the plot and the love story and more for the lingering direction if I’m honest. The film could have been cut down by quite a bit, but every minute cut would be one minute less to marvel at the beauty on screen. And I’m not talking about Scarlett Johansson here either (she’s fourteen for God’s sake!) – the glacial Kristin Scott Thomas would win the prize for her fine features. But the beauty is rather the epic landscape, the country hospitality, and the stunning animals. If people were saying that Uggie the dog was worthy of an Oscar for his role in The Artist, then certainly High Tower the horse (‘Pilgrim’) is worthy here too. 

In his spare time Robert recreated Christina Aguilera videos

What have I learnt about Montana?
Montana is referred to as “Marlboro Country” at one point. The comparison is apt. There are miles and miles and miles of open meadows and rolling hills, all backed with awe-inspiring mountain peaks in the background. A lone road, a split-rail fence, some wooden houses sheltering by the stream, this is as much as man has managed to tame nature. There aren’t many signs (well, not printed ones anyway. And, as Grace asks, what would it say? “Ten miles to big rock. Twenty miles to bigger rock”?) Cows and horses outnumber people. And the people that live there are rugged, competent, equally at home in the saddle as in a battered pick-up. Cowboy boots, jeans, shirts and cowboy hats (and occasionally chaps) are the uniform of choice. And it seems there is nothing that cannot be achieved with a length of rope. 

Those people are contrasted with the cold, stuck-up East Coast MacLeans. They have warm, sprawling families, all of whom would drop everything to help one another out. So would their network of friends spread across the neighbouring ranchers. Each helps the other so that the community thrives. They tell tall tales, dance to country music and are reserved in their opinions. They seek to be hospitable to newcomers. They are charitable and Christian. 

The Battle of Little Big Horn was fought in Montana. There is a monument there to commemorate it. Tom talks about a native American from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, but we never see one. Looks like Custer’s successors were much more successful than he was. 

Can we go there?
That memorable scenery is Montana. Robert Redford shot in the Boulder River valley, south of the town of Big Timber. Those mountains in the background must be the Abaroka Range, and behind them is Yellowstone National Park in north-west Wyoming. Shooting was spread across Park and Sweet Grass Counties. He had filmed an earlier work, A River Runs Through It, in the same area four years previously so I guess he likes it there!

A working cattle ranch about an hour from Livingston was used for the Booker’s estate. The ranch house and Creek House were constructed specially for the film however. Despite the fact that the Little Bighorn Battlefield Memorial is located in Montana it was recreated nearer to Livingstone for the purposes of filming. Since then a memorial for the Indian casualties has also been unveiled at the Battlefield.  

The MacLean’s home was in Saratoga Springs in New York state. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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