I believe the book was called Speaker for the Dead. In it, the protagonist was trying to help a mother calm an unruly child whose father had died. After the usual shushing noises failed to help, the man simply held the squirming child on his lap. When the kid saw he saw he was trapped, he resorted to wetting his pants, then trying to squirm free. The man held the child tighter, letting the sour liquid soak his own clothes, continuing to reassure the child as though nothing had happened. Gradually the child’s squirming turned into hugging, holding tight to the man whose patience, unconditional love, and permanent presence had won out.
Patience, love, and persistence are the virtues Tom Booker (Robert Redford) embodies in The Horse Whisperer. Booker uses these virtues to gentle horses who have been spooked. They seem to work just as well with people....
Grace (played very well by a young Scarlett Johansson) has been betrayed by the world.
She and her best friend, riding horses, are involved in a devastating accident; a truck collides with them, killing her best friend and one of the horses. Part of Grace’s leg has to be amputated. Her horse Pilgrim is so badly injured that he should be “put down,” though her mother Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) is too distraught to be able to authorize the horse’s euthanasia.
Grace can’t cope with having survived such a terrible accident. Her mother is concerned but is no real help. Annie wants Grace to get better, but she doesn’t know how to go about it. She gives Grace too much distance for fear of not giving her enough, and Grace is left to deal with her problems on her own.
Grace learns of her horse Pilgrim’s condition and insists on seeing him. She tries to approach him, but he is so spooked that he won’t allow even Grace to approach him.
Annie contacts Booker, hoping he can come have a look at Pilgrim. In a somewhat contrived device, Booker refuses an all-expense paid trip to New York. Annie, in an attempt to compensate for her inability to help Grace, decides to take time off from work and drive Pilgrim to Montana in the hopes that Booker will not turn her away. It’s the only thing she can think to do, and she can’t stand doing nothing.
On the way, Grace and Annie fight. Their dialogue is extremely well written (credit screenwriters Richard LaGravenese [Bridges of Madison County, The Ref] and Eric Roth [Forrest Gump]). Grace is genuinely angry at her mother in a nondistinct, frustrated sort of way. Annie means well but it’s as if she’s going through the motions of parenting. She’s seems afraid to pry, keeping too much distance from Grace every time they interact. Their fights are selfish and frustrating and only mildly productive. Both characters are so well developed (credit both actors) that neither reacts two-dimensionally. You can see both sides of every argument, without ever seeing the solution, which really makes you empathize with their situation.
When they finally get to Montana, Booker’s patience, persistence, wisdom, and charm start working on Pilgrim, on Grace, and on Annie. With Pilgrim, Booker administers physical therapy. When Pilgrim runs off one day, Booker spends all afternoon waiting him out. With Grace, Booker gives responsibility and trust, in exchange for Grace’s commitment. With Annie, Booker gives his attention and affection, not to mention a model for what good parenting looks like.
Probably the best thing about The Horse Whisperer is the acting. Redford is perfect as Tom Booker. His natural charm complements the folk wisdom and quick wit of his character. Thomas and Johansson are a great pair of actors who work very well together. Their mother-daughter conflict is as convincing and natural as their growth and reconciliation. Alone, Thomas gets to show her impressive range and Johansson proves to be a talented young actor. Even Sam Neill, in a small role as Grace’s father, gives a good performance as the greenest of newcomers to Montana.
Redford’s direction is impeccable. Patience, love, and persistence help the injured heal. Those same qualities describe the film itself. The pace is gradual, but always progressing, keeping in stride with the progress of Grace and Pilgrim. The accident scene is tightly shot and edited, giving the whole sequence a severity appropriate to the damage it caused, and appropriate in its contrast to the rest of the film. It is also likely that Redford, as director, deserves some credit for coaxing such great performances from the actors.
The cinematography is gorgeous, albeit gratuitous. In what my friend Rob calls “god’s-eye view” shots, we see a tiny car and trailer moving through the winding roads of Wyoming and Montana. The natural isolated location of a Montana ranch backed by rugged mountains lends itself to beautiful pictures and solid compositions (did the aspect ratio change when they arrived in Montana or did my projectionist mess up?). On the other hand, these great-looking shots don’t always feel consistently used within the movie’s structure. They are wonderful to behold, but they are not always incorporated into the prevailing mood of the storyline.
And of course the story of healing is very good. Booker’s way with people and horses is at once mesmerizing and unbelievably simple. His story of patience, love, and simple contact is a nice parable for our time.