In 'The Horse Whisperer,' Robert Redford proves himself a talented and capable film director by making the sappiest melodrama into a stunningly beautiful and majestically immersive motion picture. Assisted by the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Richardson, who recently took home an Oscar for his work on Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo,' Redford fills the screen with splendid landscape scenery of Montana and spectacular views of the mountains, displaying their terrifying enormity as well as their overwhelming beauty. In doing this, which I believe is deliberate to mask much of the narrative's histrionic flaws, the filmmakers elevate the story's excessive sentimentality into something of sheer wonder and elegance.
It's easy to get caught up in the immense splendor of the state and lose one's self amongst its wilds, breezing through the movie's 170 runtime with leisure, not realizing how quickly the time flew by. It's precisely the sort of experience Redford is hoping to achieve, placing his audiences into a similar mindset as the two characters who drove nearly two thousands from New York. And the legendary actor of such indelible classics as 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' and 'The Sting' definitely succeeds in this respect, fooling us into overlooking any weaknesses and simply enjoying the panoramic photography. I would even venture so far as to say that the story of a man with a unique talent for horse training is merely an excuse for Redford to film in the beautiful state of Montana.
This becomes more evident when we consider Redford and Richardson purposefully pillarboxed the picture frame for the first half hour of the film. (Actually, it was shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and placed in the center of a 2.35:1 frame, making it appear like black bars on either side of the screen.) These are scenes taking place in the city, showing the strained marriage of Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Robert (Sam Neill). We also see the terrible accident which cost their teen daughter, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), part of her left leg and traumatized her horse Pilgrim. There is a clear sense of unbearable confinement and emotional constrain causing a damaging rift within the family, which I'm sure is the intention. And right as we start noticing this strange pressure of captivity, the filmmakers open the picture, and we're finally able to breathe.
The same seems to be happening for Annie and Grace although it takes them a while to be aware of, and even appreciate, the changes occurring around them, as well as within their troubled relationship. Redford and Richardson do this also — the switching between aspect ratios — as a shocking contrast between the cold concrete exteriors of life in the city and the striking magnificence of the great outdoors. If we continue examining the many visual metaphors strewn throughout the film, then that same coldness and indifference is the ruin of the two women's mother-daughter bond, confusing love with pushing someone beyond their readiness. How better to beat such emotionlessness than with warm country hospitality like that represented by Frank (Chris Cooper) and Dianne Booker (Dianne Wiest), brother and sister-in-law to Redford's horse whisperer Tom.
Annie and Grace make the trek to Montana in hopes of giving Pilgrim the sort of therapy only Tom could provide. As the story progresses and more time is spent living in the open spaces of the ranch, the healing process turns out to include Annie, Grace and Tom as well. This is story not only about the training of a badly scarred horse, but also of three badly scarred people confronting personal demons they would much rather not talk about. As the wisely insightful Tom would say, it's not really that complicated. It's much easier to simply say the words than to actually do it and mean it, whatever that may be for each of the characters. Again, it makes for a mawkishly sentimental story based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Evans, but Redford and cinematographer Robert Richardson place so much stunning scenery in the backdrop that we actually find ourselves immersed in and swept away by the melodrama, making it great cinema nonetheless.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment brings 'The Horse Whisperer' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue eco-lite keepcase. At startup, viewers can sit through a series of skippable trailers, one of which is a promo for the Blu-ray release of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' Afterwards, a silhouette photo fills the screen with the normal set of menu options and music.
'The Horse Whisperer' commences with an interesting visual technique, where the first half hour of the movie is intentionally pillarboxed (actually, filmed in a 1.85:1 frame but looks windowboxed on a 16:9 screen). Once Annie and Grace are on the road to Montana, the picture suddenly opens up to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, capturing the majestic beauty and overwhelming splendor of the countryside. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is a gorgeous representation of the work done by award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, showing the lovely plains and mountains of Montana with a sense of awe. The high-def transfer arrives with spot-on contrast, allowing for crystal-clear clarity and visibility in the far distance. Black levels are accurate though not as intense or consistent as I would prefer, and the color palette is richly-saturated with vivid, energetic primaries.
A majority of the video comes with excellent definition and resolution. We can easily make-out every blade of grass and leaf on a tree along with every hair of the horse's mane. The film-like presentation could certainly pass as demo-worthy, but unfortunately, the print used does show its age in a couple spots, sometimes looking a bit processed and digitized with some minor crush. Grain becomes more pronounced and shadow details are noticeably lacking. It's not enough of an issue to be of major concern, but worth noting nonetheless and keeps the overall quality of the image just shy of reference. Still, there's enough beauty in the photography for fans to find little fault with this Blu-ray.
Redford's film also comes to Blu-ray with an amazing DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that nicely immerses the listener into this world of the modern cowboy. Its strength is not necessarily in the rear activity, which isn't employed much for generating ambience. Occasionally, a few atmospherics are heard which fill the room to pleasing effect, like the coming of a thunder shower. In fact, this dialogue-driven film is not-surprisingly a front-heavy presentation with excellent channel separation and well-prioritized vocals.
What actually makes this lossless mix such a winner is the original music of Thomas Newman and Gwil Owen. Creating a beautifully expansive and spacious imaging, the score occupies most of the entire soundstage with astounding fidelity and a great deal of warmth. The dynamic range is remarkably extensive, exhibiting detailed clarity in the instrumentation. You can clearly hear each individual string of the guitar as it is strummed. The music bleeds into the surrounds seamlessly and envelops the listener with satisfying effect. Bass is generally mellow, but accurate and robust, providing the score with a hearty presence.
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Horse Whisperer' carries over the same set of special features seen on the special edition DVD releases.
Despite its somewhat mawkish sentimentality, Robert Redford manages to turn the melodrama 'The Horse Whisperer' into an engaging and moving motion picture. Thanks in large part to the stunning cinematography of Robert Richardson, audiences can appreciate the immense beauty of Montana while relaxing to the story of healing traumatic wounds and one's man unique connection to horses. If not for a couple of age spots on the print, this Blu-ray release could easily serve as reference quality, with an amazing and beautifully crafted lossless soundtrack. Supplements are not only disappointing but also terribly uneventful. Nonetheless, fans and horse (and Redford) lovers alike should be very happy with this Blu-ray release.