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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Horse Whisperer

July 2nd, 2012

The Horse Whisperer - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

The Horse Whisperer came out early in the summer of 1998 and there were high hopes for the film. It was directed by Robert Redford, who had recently made A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show, both of which were nominated for a few Oscars, A River Runs Through It even won for Best Cinematography. It was also the first time Robert Redford would star in a movie he directed and some thought that he might finally win an Oscar for acting to go with his one for directing. However, the film earned good reviews, but not Oscar-worthy reviews like many were expecting. Now nearly 15 years later, the movie is coming out on Blu-ray. Is it worth checking out for those who missed the film the first time around? Is it worth upgrading for those who own the DVD?

The Movie

The film begins on a wintery day in the country with Grace McLean waking up early to sneak out of the house without waking her father, Robert. She's looking to get in some early horseback riding with her friend, Judith. However, while riding on a snowy hill through the woods, there's an accident and Judith and her horse are killed while Grace is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up she's in the hospital and the lower part of her right leg has been amputated. Her horse, Pilgrim, was also severely injured and the vet, Liz, recommends that it be put down. However, Grace's mother, Annie, is in shock and tells the vet to keep the horse alive.

Grace mends physically, more or less, but emotionally she is having a lot more difficulties. When she wants to see Pilgrim, Robert and Annie take her, but the Pilgrim is not only still physically scared, but emotionally as well. The vet again asks for permission to put down the horse, but she understands that Grace's recovery depends on Pilgrim's recovery. She puts her determination, which is normally given to work, into finding out everything she can about horses and trauma. She tracks down someone who is an expert in this field, a horse whisperer as the magazine calls him. But when she calls Tom Booker and asks him to come to New York to look at her horse, he flat-out says no. He has to go to his brother's ranch in Montana and has no interest in going to New York, even for a day. So, Annie decides to take the horse to him in Montana, and takes Grace with her. It's not exactly a friendly family road trip.

When they finally get to Montana, Tom still isn't all that interested in looking at Pilgrim, but is impressed by Annie's dedication. He agrees to at least look at the horse, but it is not until he's convinced Grace is willing to put in the effort that he agrees to help. There's not a lot of progress at first, but at least Grace and Annie start to enjoy the country life and stay at the ranch with Tom's brother, Frank, his wife, Dianne, and their kids, including Joe with whom Grace becomes friends. While the attraction between Annie and Tom goes beyond friendship.

That's probably a good point to end the plot synopsis. The film tells three stories. It's about the injury Grace suffered and her attempts to recover emotionally, which are tied to Tom's work with Pilgrim, and leads to the rehabilitation of the relationship between Grace and Annie. And of course, there's the romance between Tom and Annie. It's clear the two have genuine feelings for each other, but there are obviously huge issues, including Annie's marriage to Robert. Finally, there's the simple worship of the Montana countryside. As he showed in A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford has a reverence for nature and he really knows how to put that on film.

So do these three stories work? Absolutely. This film manages to avoid a lot of the clichés one would expect from these stories. There have been a lot of films about wild horses, just like there have been lots of films about people recovering from an injury like the one Grace suffered. I never got the feeling that this film was stitched together from bits and pieces of other films. I credit this to the strengths of characters, both the writing and the acting. Robert Redford plays a cowboy, but not in the usual stereotypical way. Kristin Scott Thomas could have been a simple workaholic woman who learns the benefits of just relaxing. This is certainly as aspect of her character, but there's more to it than that. Finally, while HREF=>Scarlett Johansson had a couple film roles before this one, she showed she had real talent with her performance here. Also, there is something special in the slow romance that develops between Annie and Tom. It presents a mature story that has two people who are not actually looking for love, seem to find it, but know it is not meant to be.

The story avoids most of the clichés, but not all of them. I don't get how so many shows romanticize living in a small town over living in the big city. After all, if living in a big city is so terrible, why do so many people live there? Personally, and I say this as someone who has lived on a farm, in a big city, and in the suburbs, I think living in a big city is the best, except for the costs. (Foamy the Squirrel and I agree on that point.) Also, there are some issues with the film's pace. Even if you like the movie, you would agree that it is deliberate. If you don't, you might use less flattering terms. "Glacial" is my go to word in these situations.

The Extras

The only extras on the Blu-ray are three short featurettes on the director, the man who inspired the lead character, and a making of featurette. There is also a music video. That's not enough.

The video is excellent and a huge step up from the DVD release, although that's not saying a whole lot, as the film never got an anamorphic wide screen release till now. They even include the change in the aspect ratio from 1.85 (city life) to 2.35 (country life) like the film had during its theatrical run. It's not perfect and there are a few minor issues that creep up, including some scenes that are a little soft, but for the most part it is a very crisp picture and the colors of nature pop. There's something about nature that just makes the most out of high definition. The audio is great with a lot of ambient sounds coming from the surround sound speakers. There were a couple of times where the volume rose a little too much, but it isn't too much of an issue.

The Blu-ray costs $15, which is as high as I would be willing to spend for shovelware.

The Verdict

Despite some pacing issues The Horse Whisperer is an emotionally effective movie. The Blu-ray is shovelware, but that shouldn't prevent people from upgrading, as the audio and video are worth it.

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