Sunday, December 25, 2011
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
War Horse's publicity presents it as an immaculately crafted piece of horse-love entertainment calculated to make you weep with Pavlovian efficiency, and that's basically what it is. I went in expecting it to jerk my tears, and I got it. But expecting to cry at something, the anticipation of it, threatens the effectiveness, which is largely based on surprise. (Seeing the musical Billy Elliot this past week, for instance, the song "The Letter" caught me completely off guard and left me a blubbering mess.) War Horse's success in bringing forth the bawling depends on Steven Spielberg's ability to outmaneuver the viewer's expectations for his vaunted emotional manipulation.
The film opens with DP Janusz Kaminski's panoramic shots of some of the most gorgeously green English countryside you'll ever see, on which a horse is being born. The horse is sold to a Devon farming family, the Narracotts, whose teenaged son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) names it Joey and trains it in riding and farming in spite of everyone's expectations (except the audience's, that is). Falling on hard times, however, Joey's father (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to Britain's armed forces, just as World War I is beginning. The film then alternates between Joey and Albert’s trials throughout the war.
In that synopsis is hiding a neat experimental film, one that follows Joey exclusively and treats its human beings as background props the way most movies treat animals. Spielberg's not that kind of filmmaker, though, and neither is the source material, so what we get instead is a film that puts its horse on an equal (equine?) footing with its people, who all have stories of their own.
The type of story changes with circumstance. The first half hour or so is a mini-movie in itself, an "inspirational" family drama complete with fowl comic relief (not a typo), a hissable landlord villain, and a ticking-clock challenge of harvesting enough produce to pay off the rent. There's a lot of set up for important stuff later on, but it's a little too cloying, as is Irvine's golden-boy portrayal of Albert, but things get comfortably darker once the war gets going. Although the movie's PG-13 rating precludes explicit gore, the battle sequences are still harrowing and, occasionally, profoundly upsetting, in a way that makes them some of the most effective parts of the movie.
The movie is constantly hindered, however, by its episodic structure and focus on characters whose backstory and fate are either inconsequential or should be. Of the various folk into whose care Joey comes, only a handful (the British soldier who rides Joey and a German soldier who later cares for him) cultivate a natural sympathy. The others demand far too much attention without commanding it in a story that's supposed to be about horses.
Those horses, the several of them that play Joey and co-star Topthorn, are fantastic, by the way. Not just their eyes but their body language convey clear emotion that makes it easy to identify with them; they are characters as much (in fact more) than any of the human beings, in a way that recalls Andy Serkis' Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another movie this year in which a non-human drove the story. So suggestive are their movements and faces that one could easily imagine the lines they would have if a lesser director had made them talking animals. Just as necessary for the success in making them full-fledged characters is Spielberg's direction, the way they are framed, with low angles imparting to them a certain majesty. As befitting their species, the horses must carry the movie, and they do so marvelously.
Given that the movie is about a horse and his boy, the ending is never much in question. Knowing this actually works to its benefit, though. Knowing essentially how things will turn out allows Spielberg not just to surprise, but also occasionally shock, with what he'll put his characters through and how they will reach their destination. It can be somewhat contrived, but compared to the endings of War of the Worlds and A.I., the plot machinations here are positively restrained.
In spite of its manipulation, the corniness of the early scenes, and a John Williams score that all but subliminally instructs you to break out your hanky, War Horse earns its tears in spite of both itself and my cynicism. The work done by and with the horses elevate the material considerably. Yet the insistent focus on the non-equine performers distracts almost as considerably. The movie's most exhilarating moments, outside of the battle scenes, involve horses running free and unencumbered; one wishes the entire film were made in that selfsame spirit.