is second worst film Steven Spielberg has ever made, and easily one of the worst films of 2011, and chances are you’ll love every horse-dying moment of it. Spoiler
Sure to be a sentimental crowd-pleaser, the movie kicks off with a thirty-minute prologue about a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) who happens to witness the birth of a horse (named Joey) in an open field. Albert stares with such Spielbergian grandeur that you’d think he was gawking at CGI dinosaurs instead of a wobbly-legged foal smeared with afterbirth.
Fast forward through a painful sequence about the horse growing up that Spielberg chose to edit like a “young love” montage, and we finally arrive at the first plot point: Albert’s drunken father (played with a wonderful yet totally unnecessary amount of sincerity by Peter Mullan) gets into an auction bidding war over Joey with his landlord. Of course he wins the horse for an exorbitant amount of money and then is forced to face the fact he can no longer afford rent unless he teaches Joey to plow a rocky field so he can plant turnips. I would have shot the damn thing after it stole the first pie, but that's just me.
What happens next ranks among the silliest moments in cinema since the McDonald’s dance party in Mac and Me
. The evil landlord arrives to play mind games with Albert and Joey as they struggle to plow the field, even though their success will bring him lots of money. As the boy and horse struggle and fail, the entire population of the town arrives to cheer them on, appearing out of nowhere. There are no establishing shots, no sound of trucks on the air, they simply arrive at the farm purely from the writer’s need to suck every last drop of emotion from his suckers audience.
But even their hooting and hollering do nothing to encourage our boy/horse protagonist ... and then it begins to rain ....
To tell you the details of the rest of the plot (read: series of random events) would be cruel, but here’s the short version: the war starts and the cavalry buys Joey who then gets passed from owner to owner as they are horribly mangled or murdered by Germans. While Joey is never the direct reason these people die, he is always indirectly involved, and by the end of the film he’s racked up such a body count it’s a wonder they didn’t title the movie Doom Horse: Steed of Destruction
.No, seriously, someone make that movie.
While the script is overly sentimental and criminally unstructured, it does have its share of good moments. For instance, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch starring as fellow soldiers with an underlying rivalry are a lot of fun and a particular sequence in the middle of the film, starring Niels Arestrup and the newcomer Celine Buckens as a French grandfather and granddaughter surviving the war in their small shack, is particularly touching. In particular, Arestrup delivers a monologue in halting English that ranks among the more beautiful character moments Spielberg has filmed in the last twenty years, if not his entire career. Not even the super rad kickboxing montage could save it.
But these good moments are fleeting and, while Spielberg has often turned in decent work from bad scripts (Minority Report
, War of the Worlds
), what really makes War Horse among the worst films he’s ever made is the abysmal cinematography.
This might seem like a grand claim since it was lensed by the talented Janusz Maninski, but while things like too much headroom over actors heads and dull frame composition might be considered a matter of preference (they shouldn’t be, but for the sake of argument ...) there are moments in War Horse
when the lighting is just objectively wrong. Case in point, a scene early in the film when Albert and his friend are training Joey in an open field. Even though the sun is out and would be the only source of lighting, the boys are casting distinct double shadows on the ground, pointing in opposite directions, making the scene look like a Mexican soap opera.War Horse
is the first live action film that Spielberg has edited on a computer. The process gave him an unprecedented range of options, allowing him to see his editing notes implemented in seconds instead of hours. While this could have rejuvenated the artistic touch of a master who has churned out increasingly dull films since the mid-1990s, the result is a sleek, cheap movie so full of story cliches and poorly lit two-shots it is sure to fit right in with your little cousin’s collections of Air Bud