Director Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer" is inflated with all the elements Hollywood typically uses to signify a production targeted for adults. Tragedy, trauma, guilt, romance, forgiveness and freedom -- not necessarily in that order -- all play important roles in this laboriously assembled, visually sumptuous take on Nicholas Evans' 1995 bestseller, just as those themes did 18 years ago in Redford's "Ordinary People."
Breaking his vow to never direct and act in the same film, Redford again centers the action on a rapidly fracturing family. Tightly wound New Yorker Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas), estranged from her husband, is the editor of a Vanity Fair-type magazine who is heading West with her daughter, Grace, and their beloved horse, Pilgrim. They are in search of trainer Tom Booker (Redford), who could save the wounded animal from an impending mercy killing.
The healing begins when mother and child fall in love with the rhythms and people of the heartland, where everything is bathed in a sanctifying sunshiny glow. The gritty images and sounds of the city rapidly give way to breathtaking vistas of snow-capped mountains, long stripes of contrasting farm crops, country churches, creeping tractors, groups of men fixing fences and rounding up cattle, and a car radio that will only pick up agricultural reports and evangelical programs.
The film stumbles because of the lead actors' failure to convey any real emotional connections. Redford is all blue eyes set in a chiseled leather face. He walks through the movie like a gray ghost. He's just as cultured as East Coast folk, thanks to his experience studying engineering in Chicago and his after-hours passion for classical music. Thomas, who worked up palpable passion in "The English Patient" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," is burdened with the task of making a dramatic conversion from anal-retentive workaholic to contented woman of the land.
Redford tries to sneak a convoluted Native-American mysticism on screen, with a brief segment devoted to portraits of the horse whisperers, the wise men in touch with the souls of their animal friends. "I help horses with people problems," declares Booker, who spends lots of time making eye contact with Pilgrim, summoning up unspoken mumbo jumbo to help tame the beast within the pet. That relationship, oddly enough, is about as close to a whirlwind romance as it gets in "The Horse Whisperer."