Robert Redford’s 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer is now available on Blu-ray. The film stars Redford (directing himself for the first time), Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Neill, and Scarlett Johansson, and is based on the novel by Nicholas Evans. The story is quite engaging, dealing with the aftermath of a tragic accident, though it is a tad overlong, losing focus at some points. Still, The Horse Whisperer is beautifully shot and features fine performances from its leading actors.
Redford plays Tom Booker, an expert in training horses. He specializes in problem horses, or as he puts it, “Horses with people problems.” The film opens with a horrific accident which results in the serious injury of teenager Grace MacLean (Johansson) and her horse Pilgrim. Grace has lost part of her leg in the accident and is devastated over the loss of her friend Judith (Kate Bosworth), who was killed in the accident. Pilgrim sustained terrible injuries, and though he has recovered physically, his temperament has changed. He will not allow anyone near him, even Grace. Though Pilgrim’s caretakers have suggested he be put down Grace’s mom, Annie (Thomas), refuses.
Annie is a workaholic New York magazine editor who spends most of her time at the office, away from her daughter and husband, Robert (Neill). She’s frustrated by Grace’s anger stemming from the accident, and worries that Grace is withdrawing from the family. Annie learns of Booker, the so-called “Horse Whisperer” (as a magazine profile dubbed him). She decides helping Pilgrim is the way to help Grace. She packs Pilgrim into a horse trailer, and her reluctant daughter into the car, and they set off for Montana, sans Robert. Booker is hesitant to help at first, but eventually gives in.
The film works best when it is focused on Grace. It’s easy to see why Scarlet Johansson became a star, because she truly shines in this early role. Her realistic portrayal of a troubled teenager is the heart of the film. However, the storyline ends up revolving around Annie. She is dealing with choosing between her career and her family. She also develops a romance with Booker. It’s hard to blame her, because in this film Booker is basically perfect. He is good looking, rugged, and smart. He is a cowboy who listens to classical music and always knows the right thing to say. I like Redford in the film, but the character is a bit one dimensional in that he can seemingly do no wrong.
With a running time of just under three hours, the movie could’ve used some trimming. The long scenes of Booker working his ranch are pretty to look at, but an indulgence. Redford could definitely have tightened his a bit, but I didn’t find it boring. The family dealing with the aftermath of the accident brings a lot of emotion to the story, though the father (Chris Cooper) gets the short shrift, since he’s left out of most of it. Annie having to deal with life choices and commitment to her family is compelling. It’s hard to really like her character. She does not seem to be emotionally committed to either her daughter or her husband, and is selfish in her actions. However, it’s an honest look at a mid-life crisis of sorts. The accident jolted Annie out of her workaholic rut, and now she has to re-think how she has been living her life. It’s those emotional aspects that really make this film work.
The Blu-ray is presented in a1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The first part of the film, before Grace and Annie leave for Montana, is windowboxed (as it was in its theatrical release). This is presumably supposed to show a contrast between city life and the wide open spaces of Montana. I don’t think the effect works very well. It just looks strange to have extra black bars on the sides of the screen for the movie’s first act, wasting so much of the image space. The picture quality itself is excellent. The open fields, mountains, and sky are brought to life on the screen. The colors, more pastoral than bold and vivid, are appropriately earthy. Detail is fine, but intentionally less sharp than many films, given the soft-focus cinematography.
The sound is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The rear channels are well-utilized to create a feeling of being out in country. The sounds of wind, animals, and rain can be heard in the surround channels. The film is dialogue heavy, with voices upfront in the mix. All the dialogue is clear and easy to hear. Overall the picture and sound live up to the standards of what a high-definition presentation should be.
What doesn’t live up to previous Blu-ray standards are the special features. They are next to nothing, plus they were already available on the previous DVD release. There are three mini-featurettes that are about 90 seconds each. They are just EPK pieces shot during production in order to market the movie. There is one on the production of the film, one on Buck Brannaman (the real-life “horse whisperer” who most inspired novelist Nicolas Evans), and one more on Redford himself. None of these offer much insight into this film. The only other feature is the music video for “A Soft Place to Fall” by Allison Moorer. Moorer performed the song in a scene in the film, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for it.
Overall, The Horse Whisperer is a film that is worth watching, despite it dragging in places. It was a breakout performance for Scarlet Johansson, and it’s interesting to watch her in the role most responsible for launching her career.