Teenager Grace MacLean (Scarlett Johansson) and her best friend Judith (Kate Bosworth) go out early one winter's morning to ride their horses, Pilgrim and Gulliver. As they ride up an icy slope, Gulliver slips and hits Pilgrim. Both horses fall, dragging the girls onto a road and colliding with a truck. Judith and Gulliver are killed, while Grace and Pilgrim are both severely injured.
Grace, left with a partially amputated right leg, is bitter and withdrawn after the accident. Meanwhile, Pilgrim is traumatized and uncontrollable to the extent that it is suggested he be put down. Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), a strong-minded and workaholic magazine editor, refuses to allow Pilgrim to be put down, sensing that somehow Grace's recovery is linked with Pilgrim's.
Desperate for a way to heal both Grace and Pilgrim, Annie tracks down a "horse whisperer", Tom Booker (Robert Redford), in the remote Montana mountains. Tom agrees to help, but only if Grace also takes part in the process. Grace reluctantly agrees, and she and Annie go to stay at the Booker ranch where Tom lives with his brother and his brother's family. As Pilgrim and Grace slowly overcome their trauma, Annie and Tom begin to develop a mutual attraction. However, they are both reluctant to act on these feelings – Annie is married and Tom had his heart broken before, when his wife left him because she belonged to the city, not the ranch. Tom also asks Grace to tell him about what happened with her and Pilgrim in order to find out what Pilgrim is thinking. At first, Grace is reluctant, but eventually gathers up her courage, and tearfully tells him about the accident.
The status quo between Annie and Tom is broken when Robert MacLean (Sam Neill), Grace's father and Annie's husband, unexpectedly shows up at the ranch. Annie is increasingly torn by her feelings for Tom and her love for her family. Soon, with Tom's help, Grace finally takes the last step to heal herself and Pilgrim – riding Pilgrim again. As the MacLeans get ready to leave the Booker ranch, Robert tells Annie that he knew he was in love with her more than she loved him, and that if he could be a better father, husband or lawyer then it didn’t matter, he did it all for the love he had for her. He felt that he didn’t need more, he knows she is not sure how she feels about him, and now he wants her to make a choice, and not to come home until she is sure what she wants and that she loves him. Although Annie wishes she could stay with Tom on the ranch, she also knows that she belongs to the city, just like Tom's wife. Annie departs, driving away from the ranch, while Tom watches her go from the top of a hill.Robert Redford as Tom Booker
Kristin Scott Thomas as Annie MacLean
Scarlett Johansson as Grace MacLean
Sam Neill as Robert MacLean
Dianne Wiest as Dianne Booker
Chris Cooper as Frank Booker
Cherry Jones as Liz Hammond
Ty Hillman as Joe Booker
Kate Bosworth (credited as Catherine Bosworth) as Judith
Jessalyn Gilsig as Lucy, Annie's assistant
Jeanette Nolan as Mrs. Ellen Booker
Allison Moorer as unnamed singer
Although he had already directed several films, this was the first time Robert Redford directed a film that he also starred in.
The main character, according to writer Nicholas Evans, is modeled after horse whisperers Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and, in particular, their younger disciple Buck Brannaman. Brannaman also doubled for Robert Redford in the film and served as the consultant. Evans himself said, "Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer. The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world."
The schooling administered to the traumatized horse is faithful to a number of basic natural horsemanship techniques, although the portrayal in the film does not follow the specific method of any one practitioner. Nicholas Evans writes: "I spent many weeks traveling across the West and met three amazing horsemen: Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman." Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt were quite elderly at the time Evans met them (Dorrance and Hunt are since deceased), Brannaman is still a relatively young man.
The horse training methods shown are not entirely without controversy. While Brannaman was the on-site technical consultant, he did not have creative control. The constraints of film-making required a number of sequences to be edited for length, thus not showing some critical training elements that would normally be used. A few basic safety problems in the film include Redford kneeling in front of a horse known to charge humans in one scene, and wearing a large ring on his finger while training in another, a risky practice in the real world when simultaneously handling a dangerous horse and a rope.
A fundamental literary device used that goes against basic horse psychology was that of having Pilgrim, apparently a well-trained horse, suddenly became a vicious rogue following a single traumatic event. A horse may have a strong reaction after an accident if the elements that preceded the trauma are repeated at a future time (for example, it would be reasonable for Pilgrim to have developed a fear of vehicles, of crossing a road, or of climbing a steep slope), but not generally a complete change in personality, manner and outlook in the way that can occur in traumatized humans. Such behavioral changes in a horse would normally be the result of sustained, long-term animal abuse.
A practitioner of natural horsemanship, John Lyons, provided an equestrian's critique of the film, noting that while there were many positive messages, there was also the potential for people to get some dangerous messages about horse training from certain sequences. He first noted that the multiple horses that played Pilgrim were all well-trained animals and that the movie did not represent a real-life time frame for training a single real-life animal. He pointed out that the film made the rehabilitation of the horse appear to be a one-session event, when in reality it would take considerable time for such a change to occur. Lyons criticized a number of dangerous practices shown in the movie, and was particularly critical of the scene where Booker hobbles, ropes, and lays the exhausted horse on the ground, then has Grace get on the recumbent horse, which is then allowed to rise, and the horse and girl miraculously are both cured of their fears and once again a horse and rider team. He argued that the actual real-life practical risk of injury to horse and human in such a method is considerable, that a horse pushed to exhaustion is not "trained," and pushing a fearful rider in such a fashion is ill-advised. However, Lyons' critique also recognized the limitations of Hollywood film-making, stating, "In order to tell a story, things are often done that would be imprudent for horse owners to attempt."
The film received mixed-to-positive reviews upon its release. Janet Maslin in The New York Times says that the film "sustains great visual intensity thanks to Robert Richardson's majestic cinematography" but its "rock-solid values" are diluted by "a misconceived ending", whereas CNN in a rather sarcastic review complains that the storytelling was "all done very, very slowly" and mentions the film's length. Rotten Tomatoes reports that of 57 reviews, 74% were positive and Metacritic gives the film an average score of 65/100, based on 19 reviews. Despite this, the film was a box office hit and grossed $187 million worldwide ($75m in the US).
The song "A Soft Place To Fall" by Allison Moorer and Gwil Owen was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, though it lost out to "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt. Moorer performs the song in the movie.
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In a scene near the end of the 2005 Vin Diesel action comedy The Pacifier, Diesel's character attempts to communicate with a pet duck to help him escape his captors, for which one of the film's villains sarcastically addresses Diesel as "duck whisperer".
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In "Don't Look a Smith Horse in the Mouth", the January 3, 2010 episode of the animated TV comedy American Dad!, Roger and Stan take a misbehaving racing horse to see a man who is supposed to be a horse whisperer.
In the 2010 film Life As We Know It, starring Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl, the neighborhood teenage babysitter was endearingly referred to as "baby whisperer" because of her uncanny ability to calm the toddler Sophie down when she was fussing.
In a 2011 episode of Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, the main character Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens is referred to by his superior as a "hillbilly whisperer" because he can relate to and influence desired outcomes from the Kentucky hill people who reside in the area he patrols and who he is related to and grew up with.
In the 2015 biographical feature film Steve Jobs, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) has a talk with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) because Jobs is perceived to be difficult to communicate with, and Sculley is perceived to be a "Steve whisperer".