“oscar-bait” does not even begin to describe the late-term abortion that is steven spielberg’s warhorse… but before i get going, and so that you may not be lead to believe that i am on an anti-spielberg crusade, let me clear something up first:
I’M THE GUY WHO
LIKED LOVED HOOK!
okay? are we straight now? alright, let’s go then…
at one point, every director must ask him or herself the seminal question: who cares? and, invariably, the answer must at least be: i do! that is a process seemingly absent from mr. spielberg’s oeuvre as a director of late, not even to mention his work as a producer (terra nova anyone?) the trouble is that, for my money and ever since the lost world: jurassic park, each and every one of the ordinary people he loves so much has been underdeveloped prototypes that count on our now-standardized assumptions to appear challenged by the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. it is incompetent at best and lazy at anticipated. worst, though, goes to careless, the state he now seems to have devolved to, spoiling a career built on thoughtful consideration of his self, now outsourced to our expectations of what a “spielberg movie” is supposed to be.
i have always thought that steven spielberg was miscast as the peter pan of hollywood just because boys or man-children were always at the center of his various galaxies. from the sugarland express to e.t. by way of close encounters and even raiders, it was always evident to me that he took his supposed fun quite seriously. fully-fleshed characters were all there, painstakingly and brilliantly introduced for lasting flavor; their motivations were human and real so that we may allow ourselves to cheer them on without shame or reservation and their meaningfulness was made obvious by the audiences’ tears which, in the words of pauline kael, were “tokens of gratitude for the spell the picture had put on (them.)”
warhorse, for me, missed every single one of those
note: i will dispense with the traditional recounting of the plot points, since there aren’t any, and go straight to the mostly chronological vitriolic spoilers.
first of all, let me say this for the record: fade ins and outs are for pussies who don’t know how to finish a scene. and for a director of this stature, in the first minutes of a grand epic, to use them not even to mark the passage of time, but to actually transition from daily moment to daily moment, while still in the expository section as we discover who we are dealing with, is of the weakest lack of confidence this side of the terminal. in fact, the whole first act of this here slice of a lifetime movie could easily, but for the sweeping harmonies of mr. john williams’ violins, pass for the director’s cut of an over-ambitious irish spring commercial. let us enumerate the people we meet in the first 15 minutes of this farce:
– the handsome young teen who falls in love with a horse. as if.
– the drunk father with a mysterious, but brave, past. yes, really.
– the dutiful wife whose quiet dignity passes for depth. noooo…
– the mutton-chopped evil landlord threatening to evict. stop.
to call these characters cliché would do them honor. they are in fact but prototypical cardboard cutouts whom able screenwriter richard curtis must have been forced to write to defuse a timebomb strapped to his pet turtle, for he was apparently convinced to assume that the audience would be so familiar with these templates that we would happily fill the gaping void left by their lack of motivation or character with what we could remember from babe. after seeing such carelessness in this and tintin in the same week, is it possible to conclude that the beard has lost his eye for casting, his ear for dialogue and instinct for story? let’s move on…
as we journey from english to french to german owners of what we are told is “a fabulous beast,” we are, once again, confronted by an american director who does not dare subtitle his foreigners, which is really, really sad. especially in this movie, in which each dialect lasts for less than 30 minutes, it would have been nice, not to say added a sorely needed touch of realism to an otherwise already over-sweetened tale. may it be too forward to say that if you missed the too-subtle “grand-pere” or “schnell!” you might think all these people are english? maybe, and the over-acting, especially of the french grandpa and his “sickly” granddaughter (who gallops away her first time on a horse btw) don’t help much. actually, it is quasi-insulting that a bottle of medicine is all spielberg seems to need these days to make us care for a little girl whose skeleton, we are told none too subtly, might collapse any second now. even though a “walking picture,” saving private ryan did at least attempt to give meaning to each walker’s reason for being there, through obtrusive monologues in the middle of damp battlefields. here, we are treated to a simple binary system: people who shoot horses: bad. people who love horses: good. not only that but from hot teen english boy to fragile little french girl to portly and sweet german underling, everyone who loves the horse is a raging stereotype of cute and cuddliness. get me syd field on the phone, pronto!
but, you’ll say, you’re missing the point, this is not about them at all, this is about THE HORSE! ah yes, the horse. the fucking horse. does anyone care about horses THIS much that they are willing to take on faith that this one was so extraordinary as to inspire so many sacrifices from all who met it?! i mean, i’ve seen horses before and almost ALL of them ran, ALL of them were pretty and ALL of them reacted to noise. this one seems no different, so why all the admirative grandeur? furthermore, spielberg seems to have broken his own cardinal rule: that the eye of the “creature” is what matters most to encourage empathy on the part of an audience. sadly, a horse’s eyes are unexpressive, unidirectional and empty of any feeling or purpose. all this horse does is run, for 2 hours save for some human fighting in the 3rd act. which i wouldn’t have had a problem with but for the fact THAT HE RUNS FOR NO REASON! he is not trying to save anyone, bring a satchel full of secrets from one side to another or even find his original owner, all of which might have been good enough reasons to cheer him on. here, nothing, he runs for nothing! i said it before and i’ll say it again, without the sweeping score, each shot of this horse would have been laughed out of the theater. it’s as if spielberg looked at his dailies and just went: “meh, johnny will save it…” much like lucas before him.
and let’s talk about the only non-horse sequence of the film. it seems to only be there to break up the sentimentality with a see-what-i-can-do-with-war? moment from a director who has long-lost his conviction. are we supposed to believe that in the blue glow of early morning in a war during which 100s of 1000s of people were lost, soldiers regain their basic humanity thanks to one fucking animal caught in barbed wire?! COME ON! and i’m sure that in many a review, that scene between english, german and beast has been highlighted as a tour-de-force but it fails so miserably in elevating the morality of this tale beyond a 99¢ store we are the world that we are left with a dolly-out from the trio to an establishing shot feeling like “wait, that was it?…”
yes i’m upset. i’m upset because this is not adult filmmaking. this is simply doing something because one can.
why do all these people care so much whether this horse lives or dies? OMG, it IS his horse! great then, keep him, instead of executing him in front of everybody in this out-of-place grand ceremony. i guess. sure, french grand-pere, travel 3 days to honor the memory of your dead grand-daughter until a scarf, a slow dolly-in and a little music changes your mind?…
NONE OF THE CHARACTERS HAVE ANYTHING AT STAKE IN THIS ENTIRE MOVIE OTHER THAN MISPLACED NOSTALGIA FOR A HORSE THAT DOES NOTHING SPECIAL!!!! who cares? nobody does…
also of note:
– why is the epilogue completely orange?
– why do family members returning from war and presumed dead stand in front of each other instead of jumping into each other’s arms?
– and don’t come to me with “but the cinematography was great!” the cinematography was not great, it was obvious.
okay, i think i’ve covered everything. can’t wait to see lincoln. have a great week!