Director Robert Redford’s 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer offers a stark lesson in how good filmmaking can transform even the most repugnant of narrative conceits.  Redford takes inspiration from the bestselling Nicholas Evans novel, a sappy, moony piece of wish-fuffillment that finds the author using a young girl’s severe phsysical and emotional trauma to engender her mother’s late-stage sexual reawakening.  It’s an appalling piece of “literature” (think Twilight for soccer moms), and one with enough melodramatic twists to fill a season of “General Hospital.”

Had Redford made that movie, we’d be looking at sub-prime Lifetime fare.  The minor miracle is, he manages to take that trash novel and turn it into something occasionally profound, often moving, and always beautiful.  The Horse Whisperer is a real movie, and we are all the better for it.

Redford makes his intentions clear in the opening scene, which dramatizes the accident that leaves young Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) and her horse Pilgrim crippled in both mind and body.  The moment is horrible, brutal, lightning-fast, and sound designer Gary Rydstrom is able to suggest all kinds of horrors off-screen without ever jeopardizing the film’s PG-13 rating.  The intensity of the accident casts a pall that hangs over the rest of The Horse Whisperer; we accept the borderline-soap opera elements that follow because Redford uses real pain to motivate them.

Furthermore, the scene reconfigures the film’s focal point.  In the book, our access point was Grace’s mother, Annie (played in the film by Kristin Scott Thomas), a Type-A Manhattan careerwoman who transplants herself and her daughter to Montana in an effort to seek out the services of rancher and “horse whisperer” Tom Booker (Redford).  Again, this was Evans’ trite way of kicking off the romance; only through her daughter’s pain could city-mouse Grace discover the wonders of nature and of the rugged-yet-sensitive Tom.

But in the movie, Redford lets Grace take over, and Johansson responds in kind.  At thirteen, the actress sends off the movie star sparks that would make her so magnetic in pictures like Lost in Translation and The Avengers; Johansson mkes Grace’s pain visceral without forcing the audience to wallow in it, and The Horse Whisperer‘s best scenes show her trying to find a new normal despite terrible suffering.  Like Redford, she knows the value of silence, which makes Grace’s dramatic climax – an Act Three recollection of the accident – that much more impactful.

Grace’s big moment comes well into the movie’s hefty 169-minute runtime, yet The Horse Whisperer rarely feels poky or slow.  Redford and his screenwriters, Eric Roth and Richard LaGravenese, have the pace replicate Tom’s rehabilitation methods; as Tom and Pilgrim take their time sizing each other up, the movie does, too.  The filmmakers try to approximate a sense of real time in the therapy sessions, so that when, say, Tom and Pilgrim spend the better part of a day sitting across from another, regarding the other’s body language, the movie settles in and watches them interact.  This might not read as “exciting,” but Redford – who is more magnetic as Tom Booker than he’s been since All the President’s Men – makes palpable the strange, otherworldly bond between man and horse; the air between the two creatures seems reverent, charged.  It never feels like we’re just marking time.

Even the scenes at right angles from the main plot (Tom’s relationship with his brother and his brother’s family; long montages watching him herd cattle) enrich our enjoyment of the story because it’s fun getting immersed in Tom’s world.  We like his extended family (headed up by the great Dianne Wiest and Chris Cooper, who played a very Tom Booker-like horse whisperer in 2003’s Seabiscuit), and we respond to the simple pleasures of the range: charging across the prairie on horseback, branding the new foals, or singing along at a camp fire after a long day of work.

And g—damn, the cinematography alone justifies the whole endeavor.  Working alongside Academy Award-winning DP Robert Richardson (The Aviator, Hugo), Redford creates a heightened version of that most heightened of American landscapes: the West.  His Montana is one of epic vistas and rumbling storm clouds and golden haze and – sometimes – all three at once; one breathtaking shot shows Annie and Tom standing on a mountain ridge as they watch grey clouds roll across a perfect blue sky.  Pretty much every shot of the film could function as a gorgeous still frame – it’s landscape pornography.

Where The Horse Whisperer stumbles is when Redford feels obliged to honor Evans’ novel; after almost two hours of this solemn, meditative tone poem, the mechanics click in, and Annie and Tom fall prey to Evans’ romantic doggerel.  The turn to convention undercuts the previous visual and spiritual drama (and Kristin Scott Thomas’ brittle, one-note characterization certainly doesn’t help), but at least Redford underplays their relationship, turning what was – in the book – a more torrid affair into a barely consummated courtship based on mutual longing.  He also changes the ending, and for the better; without getting too spoiler heavy, Redford, Roth, and LaGravenese force Annie into making the tough choice that Evans weasled his way out of.

It’s a misstep – you wish Redford would have jettisoned nearly everything Evans created save the title – but the rest of the movie is so strong that the misstep isn’t fatal.  For eighty percent of the duration, The Horse Whisperer finds real magic in the mundane, an unexpected and wholly delightful feat.

Disney’s Blu-ray looks and sounds fantastic; the image is crisp and textured (and replicates The Horse Whisperer‘s unique shifting aspect ratios), and the immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track alternates between subtle and thundering.

Features are slight: three short promotional featurettes (viewed together, they total around six minutes), a music video for Allison Moorer’s “A Soft Place to Fall,” and two trailers.

The Horse Whisperer works because Robert Redford is a believer in the transcendental union between humans and horses, and the film’s exploration of this link is genuinely thrilling.

The Horse Whisperer is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Robert Redford Elevates THE HORSE WHISPERER Far Above Shallow Source...