. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Whisperer' Wraps Empty Story in Beauty

The Horse Whisperer," Robert Redford's 1998 romantic epic, now playing at the American House of Cinema, has all the lineaments and outward flourishes of a great movie - but rarely has such a carefully crafted exterior been wrapped around so empty a core.

Obviously, the intent was to create a bittersweet hymn to love and heartbreak along the lines of "The English Patient." That movie's female star, Kristin Scott Thomas, was even brought in to play essentially the same role here: a married woman who falls in love with a mysterious, charismatic outsider. And Redford, whose golden looks have only been enhanced by the weathering of age, certainly possesses more than enough genuine charm to make an effective romantic lead.

But somehow, there is simply no chemistry between the two. This despite fine acting by both Thomas and Redford. The slowly growing erotic current that supposedly charges the two main characters does not convey itself to the audience. We see it happening; we recognize what the glances, touches and words are meant to express, but we do not feel it.

The culprit is not Redford's direction, which is excellent as usual. Nor with the acting, which is uniformly good throughout. No, the fault lies in the movie's foundation. It is based on Nicholas Evan's bestselling novel, a book which - apart from its gripping opening, expertly rendered here by Redford - is a load of witless treacle, along the lines of Robert James Wallers' unintentionally comic "Bridges of Madison County." Redford is an artist, not an alchemist; even he can't make gold from these leavings.

But for all that, "The Horse Whisperer" is by no means a bad night out at the movies. For one thing, there is the spectacular scenery of Montana, where Tom Booker (Redford) works on a ranch with his brother's family. Redford clearly loves the Big Sky country (he lives out West himself), and through his direction he communicates much of its vast, sweeping, stark beauty.

Another attraction is the main subplot: the relationship between Tom and Grace (Scarlett Johansson) and Grace's horse, Pilgrim. Grace lost a leg when she and the horse were hit by a diesel truck on a snowy New England road. She is left emotionally scarred, her future seemingly bound up with the badly damaged horse. Her mother, Annie (Thomas), a high-powered editor, casts about frantically for some means to reach Grace and heal Pilgrim. She finally hears of the Montana horseman who is able to heal troubled horses without violence, by "whispering" or communicating to them. Leaving behind her equally high-powered attorney husband (Sam Neill in yet another solid, thankless role), Annie takes Grace and Pilgrim uninvited to Montana.

But while the inevitable romance between Tom and Annie falls flat, the horseman's relationship with Grace is genuinely moving. Johansson does a marvelous acting job, fully holding her own with her more celebrated co-stars. The slowly growing trust between Grace and Tom culminates in a scene of quiet emotional power that few directors could bring off so effectively. Redford manages to do it twice, adding a parallel scene of equal power between Grace and Annie.

"The Horse Whisperer" is a film whose parts are greater than its whole. Go see it - for its scenic beauty and fine performances. Just don't expect any lasting emotional impact.

- Chris Floyd