NEW YORK — Robert Redford is one of those unquenchable movie stars who look ever more fascinating as they mature. His new drama, "The Horse Whisperer," shows him at his rugged best.
His countless fans will naturally be delighted with this, although his handsome face dominates so many scenes that skeptics may consider it too much of a good thing. It's hard to concentrate on other characters when Redford is smiling or frowning or looking pensive in an elegantly framed close-up, and as director of the film, he's made certain the camera points in his direction as often and intently as possible.
Based on Nicholas Evans's bestselling novel, the story focuses on a teenager named Grace who suffers a grievous injury in a riding accident with Pilgrim, her favorite horse. Her physical condition improves but emotional scars remain, growing deeper when she learns that her beloved Pilgrim is also in bad shape.
Determined to help, her mother drives Grace and Pilgrim to a Montana cattle ranch whose owner, Tom Booker, is renowned for a "horse sense" few cowboys can equal. Tom agrees to help the horse, only to find that the mother and daughter also need his tender, increasingly loving care. By the end of the movie everyone has changed from the experience: Grace feels better about life, her mom has learned that motherhood is more important than career, and yes, Pilgrim is almost his old self again.
The screenplay of "The Horse Whisperer" is as unsubtle as the cinematography, coaching us through a series of unsurprising emotions and predictable plot twists, including an apparent love affair between Tom and Grace's mother that throws a curve into the story's otherwise traditional morality. The picture's biggest problem is its constant wobbling among the three important characters - the girl, the mom, and the horse - who need Tom's attention. That's a lot of subplots, even for a film almost three hours long, and Redford's storytelling skills aren't strong enough to make the tale appear as seamless as it should.
Compensating for this is a nonstop stream of gorgeous Montana landscapes, and solid acting by Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother, Scarlett Johansson as the daughter, and Redford as the title character. Dianne Wiest and Sam Neill head the supporting cast, helped by six sturdy horses who take turns playing Pilgrim.
* Rated PG-13; contains a little vulgarity, a subplot about adultery, and a frighteningly graphic accident scene at the beginning.