This picture has high-powered ingredients. Two of Hollywood's biggest stars play the main characters. There's a love story, a benevolent crime (horsenapping, of all things), and a chase that lasts for something like an hour. The plot positively bubbles with issues: ecology, humane treatment of animals, the evils of advertising.
Still, the result is a curiously low-key movie. Refusing to push its plot or its meanings too hard, it doesn't pack much real excitement. It's a relaxing sort of film, yet right on target in some of its key ideas.
Robert Redford plays a famous rodeo rider named Sonny who quits the broncobusting circuit and goes to work as the advertising pitchman for a giant corporation. He makes public appearances for a cereal called Ranch Breakfast, and his picture appears on the box.
As a former outdoorsman, he has trouble adjusting to his new life. Soon he adopts to its worst lifestyles and drifts around in a drunken, irresponsible stupor. At one point he falls right off his horse in front of a gigantic crowd and lies in the dirt with his silly shirt -- bedecked with tiny lights, like a Christmas tree -- foolishly blinking. The "Electric Horseman" is an electric dope.
Then one day he takes a close look at his professional colleague -- a fabulously valuable recehorse who serves as the conglomerate's "corporate image." To his horror, Sonny discovers the horse is being abused with drugs and tranquilizers, which are used to mold the animal into the "proper" appearance. His sense of purpose awakens with his sense of outrage, and Sonny decides to save the beast from its fate. He rides the $12 million Rising Star into the desert, with both the law and the corporation in hot pursuit.
This plot could easily have become a soap-box for propaganda about the beauty of Nature and the nastiness of Businessmen. And sure enough, there are plenty of hints about both these themes. Happily, though, most of the pointmaking is implicit to the story, not tacked on. The audience is encouraged, but never coerced, into sharing the "consciousness-raising" of the character played by Jane Fonda -- who begins as a hard-nosed newswoman chasing a story and ends as Sonny's full-fledged accomplice, convinced of the nobleness of his deed.
The director of "The Electric Houseman," Sydney Pollack, has a sly way of tucking his own statements into the nooks and crannies of the film, thus keeping his comments both palatable and unobstrusive. Sonny's rediculous shirt is a lovely example of this. So is the hilarious segment set in Las Vegas, which once again serves as a ready-made metaphor for the decadence of comtemporary American life. As the story start to develop, pretty girls wearing cutoff miners' outfits do a disco dance in front of a chugging oil pump. It's a scathing observation on ecological blindness -- Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and they are shown doing the hustle while bleeding the planet dry.
And it all goes on in the background of a scene -- there to be seen and understood, yet never pushing its presence or its message on us.
"The Electric Horseman" has other virtues, too. The love angle between Redford and Fonda is handled neatly and with restraint. The corporate bad guys are presented as wry parodies, not insulting caricatures. And the end of hte film is gently unconventional. The story has a circular feeling, like many Pollack pictures -- he made "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Three Days of the Condor" among others. There's a touch of ambiguity, even at the conclusion, and we are left to decide for ourselves what happens next.
With all this going for "The Electric Horseman," it's too bad the film doesn't operate at a higher energy level. It has a tendency to drift, the mosey along when it should be charging ahead. This helps give it the relaxed atmosphere that's an important part of its appeal; but it keeps the mood from soaring as high as it might have and prevents us from getting thoroughly involved in the plot.
With its good intentions and likable demeanor, "The Electric Horseman" is an engaging but minor movie. It makes another amiable and thoughful vehicle for two of our most charismatic stars, while never quite entering the world of action and ideas that hover just beyond the horsey humor and tumbling tumbleweeds of the story.