The Horse Whisperer as Neoliberal Roadmap
to the "New" American West

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2015, Volume 14, Issue 1


J. Dwight Hines
Point Park University


In the summer of 1996, Robert Redford returned to south-central Montana – where he had filmed portions of his critically and commercially successful film A River Runs Through It (1993) – to direct the screen adaptation of Nicolas Evans’s novel The Horse Whisperer (THW, 1995). Redford chose the area north of the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness because he sought to capture the particular confluence of agricultural serenity and mountain grandeur for his film about the power of rural simplicity to heal and provide succor from the damaging and dehumanizing aspects of American urban life (Jaehne).1

In addition to that explicit message, the film that Redford created is freighted with additional themes that made it a powerful model of and for the lives and projects of the ex-urban in-migrants that have colonized communities like nearby Livingston throughout the “New” West Archipelago over the past several decades (see Hines, The Post-Industrial). Specifically, as I seek to recount here, the efficacy of The Horse Whisperer as a model for the lives of rural gentrifiers is predicated on the way it communicates the abiding neoliberal capitalist themes of creative destruction and individual responsibility.2 In so doing, I explore how cultural texts, such as novels and films, serve as conduits between larger themes within capitalist culture and the lives of people on the ground.

This article can be seen as complementing published pieces (see Ruth Williams, Woodstock, as well as Blouin and Shipley) that have also sought to describe how cultural texts are products and productive of capitalist subjectivities in the contemporary neoliberal era. As an example, Williams’s piece does an especially effective job of connecting the voices in the memoir (and subsequent film) Eat, Pray, Love (EPL) with the character of neoliberal subjects. Of specific interest to what follows here is the point made by Williams that neoliberalism in part accomplishes its ends by depoliticizing (and thereby naturalizing) this subjectivity. EPL is party to this program, as Williams notes, by inspiring its female viewers/readers to seek to empower themselves through their consumption of touristic experiences; this agenda, however, ultimately leaves them cast as unwitting contributors to re/creation of inequality. “When she finds herself travelling [sic] to other countries,” Williams writes, “the neoliberal spiritual subject takes this depoliticized viewpoint with her, allowing her to consume without regard for how her consumption perpetuates negative local economies” (18).

In another instructive example of this style of analysis, Woodstock offers an image of the ways in which neoliberal narratives of individual responsibility are interwoven into the presentation of the reality programs Miami Ink and LA Ink thereby reinforcing and broadcasting these ways of thinking and being to television viewers, which serves as an inspiration to the internalization of neoliberal perspectives and practices.

From this introduction, I now turn briefly to discussions of the primary components of this investigation: the ongoing social process of rural gentrification, the cultural ideals of neoliberal capitalism, and the relationship between the two as made evident through THW. At the end of the piece, I return to an interpretation of the film and its implicit neoliberal perspective.

Rural Gentrification

Rural gentrification has, over the last two decades, dramatically reworked the physical and social landscape of significant parts of the American West.3 The in-migration of ex-urban middle-class Americans to specific sites within the region has inspired the emergence of an “archipelago” of communities commonly referred as the “New” West (see Hines, In Pursuit).4 

In general, the migration of the members of post-industrial middle class (PIMC), with whom I do my research, is compelled by the underlying cultural standards of American middle-class-ness.5 In radical contradiction to a significant segment of U.S. history, the rural became, at the end of the prior millennium, a place in which many PIMC Americans felt they could successfully reconcile the seemingly paradoxical modern ideals of authenticity and progress (for further discussion see my publications in the Works Cited). I propose that part of the reason that they could imagine such a possibility is because of the implicit message coded within cultural documents like The Horse Whisperer. A significant part of that coded information is part and parcel of a re/emergent ideology within capitalism that is referred to as neoliberalism.

No less a social critic than New York Times columnist David Brooks has taken note of the relationship between The Horse Whisperer and the latest iteration of the middle class. In his book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), Brooks points out that, for this emerging subset of the contemporary middle class (which he calls “Bobos,” taking the first two letters from Bohemian Bourgeois), texts like THW take on a special degree of gravitas: “Movies like The Horse Whisperer serve as fables for the upper middle class: oversophisticated [sic] New York magazine editor comes to Montana, finds simple honest man who communes with horses and helps her rediscover the important things in life” (220-221).

Neoliberal Capitalism

As David Harvey describes it, neoliberalism is the increasingly hegemonic ideology within the contemporary world system, which “proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (A Brief History 2). This ideology has long been a significant one within capitalist culture (tracing its roots at least back to Adam Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” in the eighteenth century) but began its most recent rise to hegemony in the 1970s with the coordinated pushback against significant state-based regulatory apparatus – signaled by the infamous 1971 “Powell Memorandum” in which the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, then a corporate attorney associated with the tobacco industry, outlined the practical application of the neoliberal agenda. By the 1980s, the legal architecture implemented by Western-capitalist countries in the 1930s and 1940s as a means to offset the effects of the Great Depression and to moderate the worst extremes of the capitalist world system – commonly known as Keynesianism – were systematically laid siege to by the advocates of neoliberalism. 

These processes of market deregulation and austerity gained momentum with the rise to power of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s. It became further embedded globally with the fall of the Soviet bloc and the “victory” of capitalism at the end of the decade. To highlight that the perspective is not politically partisan in character, but increasingly a part of cultural substrata of the U.S. political ideology, it is important to note that it was during the Clinton administrations that the most prominent neoliberal programs were implemented. Through the promotion of privatization and austerity measures in Russia and the formerly Communist world, the revocation of significant provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, as well as the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the Telecommunications Bill of 1996, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (AKA “welfare-to-work” programs), Clinton demonstrated his allegiance to the policies of deregulation of international and domestic trade and financial activity, the reduction of social services, etc. that are characteristic of neoliberal agenda. These policy changes continued apace in the Bush II (and Obama) administrations, most noticeably in the increasing reliance upon private contractors throughout the federal system and especially in the U.S. military.  

In general, the rise of neoliberalism has involved the re-emphasis of a fundamental tenet of capitalist culture known as “creative destruction,” albeit with a significant twist (a discussion of which I return to in my conclusion). This concept, which was summarily articulated by the economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 work Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, is encapsulated in the abiding capitalist aphorism that “to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs" – the idea that to achieve progress demands of a good capitalist the willingness to destroy and rebuild anew previous patterns of production, governance, social activity, as so on. This attitude lies at the root of the hyper-capitalist perspective that is neoliberalism, which Pierre Bourdieu described as “a programme [sic] of the methodical destruction of collectives.”

The ongoing process of neoliberalization, of which we are a part, entails, as Harvey notes, “much ‘creative destruction’ not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers…but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachment to the land”and the list continues (A Brief 3). Thus to be party to neoliberal-capitalist culture entails being versed in and comfortable with the logic of “creative destruction,” to varying degrees.

In addition, I propose that over the course of the last generation the character and intensity of this ideal has shifted to the point now that we do well to describe how it is no longer understood or expressed solely as external activities/economic practices but has become a mode of governing personal behavior. To be clear, creative destruction, in the neoliberal era, is increasingly enacted on and through the individual. 

A recent analysis of this issue highlights that dramatic shifts have occurred with regard to the ideals and practices of proper personhood in late-modern and/or post-industrial societies such as the U.S., leading to the emergence of neoliberal subjectivities (see Fletcher, Foucault, Simon, and Martin). Prominent among these is the work of Emily Martin who described the emergence of narratives of “flexibility” with regard to bodily processes, which are the mirror images of increasingly “flexible” practices within capitalism (see Martin). The image of the human body (especially of the immune system) as possessed of flexible qualities to deal with the dynamic and irregular nature of existence, according to Martin, is a counterpart of the forms of “flexible accumulation” that Harvey described as arising in the neoliberal era (see Martin and Harvey).

Taking this a step further we can see Foucault’s point that developments such as these conspire to compel neoliberal subjects to become “entrepreneurs of themselves" and to operate in the world with an intense appreciation of individual responsibility and an abiding attention to the need to pursue “creative destruction” in the service of personal (and collective) improvement (see The Birth of Biopolitics).

In a similar vein, Jonathan Simon’s work shows how neoliberalism in the 1990s and 2000s disaggregated risk, which had been approached as a group concern within the Keynesian era, and inspired individuals to take it upon themselves. Simon describes this transition:

…we might look at the 1980s…as the last edge of a long plateau of twentieth-century governance in which the predominant approach to handling risk was one of risk prevention through centralized expert regulation and collectivist loss spreading. In such societies with what we might call a “social” or “collectivist” approach to governing risk, public policies tend to emphasize loss spreading through insurance and risk reduction through centralized regulation. (205)

In the current phase of capitalism, according to Simon, the ideology of neoliberalism is collapsing the distinctions between “edgework” – the labor of voluntary risk takers, such as alpinists – and “center work” (see Lyng). This development, in effect, compels all of us, as individuals, to assume degrees of risk that were previously only characteristic of “edgeworkers.” A component of this risk is the willingness to destroy prior patterns and ways of life in service of creating new (and presumably “better”) ones.

Robert Fletcher’s application of Foucault’s idea of “governmentality” to the understanding of how neoliberalism has inspired the rise of specific forms of “enviromentalities” expands the discussion of this issue in important ways. This essay seeks to reinforce Fletcher’s point that neoliberalism is not merely a set of economic principles but is, to paraphrase Foucault, an entire way of being and thinking (Fletcher 218). Thus, neoliberalism has implications in the realm of economic activity, conservation, as well as in terms of the everyday ideals of proper middle-class behavior.

Thus, not only has the re-emergence of neoliberal ideology reinvigorated the capitalist subjects' allegiance to the idea(l) of creative destruction, it has also put a particular and, I would argue, more insidious spin on it by aligning it with the assumption of greater degrees of individual responsibility and risk. As neoliberalism has permeated the culture of capitalism, becoming not just epiphenomenal (i.e. informative only of economic/material practices) but actually integral to it, the need to understand the mechanisms that foster it becomes all the more of a premium; it is to that end that the rest of this essay is dedicated: to provide insight as to how capitalist cultural ideals such as “creative destruction,” in league with the neoliberal ideals of individual responsibility, are dispersed and woven into the cultural fabric of everyday life, not just as a “necessary evil” but as reasonable, and even valued, behavior. To accomplish this connection, I now turn to an interpretation of the narratives and themes presented in the film The Horse Whisperer, which I argue occupies a very important place in this equation as a discursive vehicle, if you will – by which the ideals of capitalist culture are broadcast and naturalized to its adherents. In so doing, such documents provide models for contemporary middle-class Americans – especially for rural gentrifiers – on how to reconcile the cultural logic of capitalism – i.e. “creative destruction” – with other powerfully informative cultural ideals such as nature, family, community, and place.

The Horse Whisperer
as Neoliberal Text

Returning to The Horse Whisperer as a neoliberal text, I would reiterate that the film serves as a model for the lives of rural gentrifiers by underscoring the neoliberal capitalist themes of “creative destruction” and individual responsibility. In the plot, regeneration is a function of place. Implicit in the message is the sense that there exists a fundamental and inherent difference between the human (symbolized in the film by the urban eastern U.S.) and the natural worlds (i.e. the rural western U.S.) that re-inscribes the early-capitalist distinction between the city and the country (first described by Raymond Williams in 1973). In the contemporary re/construction of this persistent and productive dualism, the human-made world is presented as unproductive while the natural world is seen as a site of (re)production of people, places, and things.

As one reviewer noted of THW, it represents an uncommon message and practice in contemporary domestic filmmaking. “It’s rare,” Jay Carr writes, “that an American film slows down enough to allow nature to enter the picture." Redford himself acknowledges this fact when speaking of the theme of regeneration in the movie: “It takes time, and nobody wants to let nature take up their time. But that’s the lesson here. Patience brings understanding” (qtd. in Carr). Nature brings healing, according to his model, by instilling the patience necessary for regeneration to occur. The “nobody” of Redford’s statement can be interpreted as the embodiment of the urban American enculturated to an ethos of “creative destruction” – one who has internalized the fundamental American belief in the value of regeneration through violence, which historian Richard Slotkin noted, is a running theme throughout U.S. history.

The unproductive destruction of the human world is made evident in several ways early on in the film. For example, the initial sequence shows two young girls horseback riding in an upstate New York winter forest. They are enjoying their seeming solitude and remove from civilization until their mounts begin to slide down a snow-covered hill right into the path of an oncoming semi-trailer truck.

The dramatic and violent juxtaposition of the young girls, the horses, and the big rig against the backdrop of what had been a tranquil forest is horrific. After the scene, we learn that one of the girls and her horse have lost their lives while the other two were seriously physically and psychologically damaged.

The destructive and unproductive character of the human world, distilled as New York City, is also evident in the scenes following the deadly accident. Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), the mother of the girl who survives, is a high-powered magazine editor immersed in her job to the point that her marriage to Robert (Sam Neill), her lawyer husband, is dissolving. It is made subtly apparent in these scenes in the hospital – where the girl, Grace (Scarlett Johansson), is recovering from having lost a leg – that her parents are no longer “producing” with one another.

Determined to help Grace, Annie refuses to allow the veterinarian to euthanize the injured horse, Pilgrim, which she intuitively recognizes as a vital element in her daughter’s recovery. Instead, she phones Tom Booker (Robert Redford), a Montana rancher and reputedly the best horse trainer in the country. Tom refuses to come to New York to look at the horse, but Annie is undeterred. She loads up Grace and Pilgrim and drives to Montana. There she succeeds in enlisting Tom’s help in healing Grace’s horse and Annie’s family.

From that beginning, violence is a central and reoccurring theme in The Horse Whisperer. The violence, however, is portrayed in two different ways in the film pertaining to the fundamental dichotomy it presents/preserves between the urban East and rural West. To wit, the violence and damage in the film’s initial scene is portrayed as uncontrollable and impersonal. The driver of the truck is never seen. The rig is presented as an out of control (not to mention human-made) force that wreaks havoc upon the innocence of nature, both animals and the young. The damage is irrational, not commensurate with any transgression, nor part of any design. In a word, it is fundamentally unreasonable from the perspective of a modern American.

By contrast, the violence practiced on Tom Booker’s Montana ranch – and there is considerable violence in the scenes set there, principally against animals – is established as controlled and reasonable. A cattle-branding scene, for instance, which figures prominently in the presentation of ranch life, involves calves being roped and stretched, dragged, branded, vaccinated, and having their ears and testicles cut (the latter are not seen but implied).

The violence visited on the animals is presented unambiguously and as bolstered by clear and emphatic reason. When asked in an interview about the film’s violence, Redford stated, “There are various ways to brand cattle, but we showed the most old-fashioned way there is. Each calf must be wrangled, wrestled with, and branded with its tattoo, then returned to the mother. There is a technological way to do it, but it’s more brutal, because it keeps the calf away from the mother much longer. It’s cruel” (qtd. in Jaehne). Later in the interview, he adds, “Oh, branding – well, it’s got to be done and, like everything, you can either do it right and humane or you can do it the other way” (qtd. in Jaehne). Implied then is the idea that violence is right if it has a reason, especially if that reason is reasonable, for example to facilitate more efficient production (or, when it comes to animal husbandry, reproduction).

Redford’s statement shows several interesting facets of this reasoning. First, naturalization is sought in history by calling it the “most old-fashioned way” and implying that it is less “technological"; brutality and cruelty, by contrast, are assigned to the “technological” way (of which we learn nothing except for his idea that separation from a parent is “cruel”). These are not idle thoughts – i.e. technology is brutal; dividing a family is cruel, etc. – but reoccurring themes and ideas in this film that are transmitted (and internalized) as models of cultural experiences by movie-goers.

In the film, violence is also alluded to in Tom’s attempts to rehabilitate Pilgrim. According to the apparent ethos of horse-whispering, to communicate to the animal that it can once again trust humans, Tom must simulate cruelty or, more accurately, simulate the potential for cruelty. Several scenes involve him forcefully roping and tying the horse in order to show it that although he could hurt Pilgrim he will not.  In another interview, Redford offers his interpretation of this facet of the plot: “The scene where I [as Tom Booker] rope him [Pilgrim, the horse] may look cruel, but it’s not. I rope him to show him that he can be roped without harm. And when I have him kneel down, it goes to that mythic place about man and beast that stirs something very ancient in us. [Tom] has control over the horse, and he can do anything he wants, and the horse knows it. But at the moment he could hurt the horse, he makes sure the horse knows he won’t do that” (qtd. in Jaehne).

This too is violence enacted to facilitate improvement or regeneration; it is violence (feigned or actual) that is completely rational (i.e. natural) to those of us enculturated to a modern-capitalist perspective. These issues are developed and illustrated as part of this contemporary version of the long-standing discourse of urban/rural difference. What divides the two is not whether there is violence but by whom and upon whom (or what) it is performed as well as the reasons for its performance. The perpetrators of violence – the cowboys at the branding, Tom in retraining Pilgrim – in the rural West are justified because their actions are clearly defined in the service of production (of commodities, which steers or castrated male cows are) and the regeneration of complete beings (both horses and humans). Violence, or destruction if you will, is in the service of progress in this vision of the rural-agricultural experience. Although it is tempered by “patience,” which Redford believes nature demands, it is violence nonetheless. In essence both visions – of the rural West and urban East – are violent. What divides them is the extent to which violence is regenerative, whether its destruction is creative.

Tom Booker and Annie McLean as
"New" West Cultural Icons

In addition to the dichotomous depiction of violence as a facet of modern-capitalist life another important aspect of THW as an important cultural text is its presentation of Tom Booker and Annie McLean as “New” West cultural icons who embody the ethos of neoliberal “creative destruction” and individual assumption of risk. Each of these character, in its own way, models a version of proper “New” West experience to members of the PIMC as actual or potential rural gentrifiers.

A principal aspect of the urban/rural dichotomy is evident in the ways in which Redford portrays his character Tom Booker. In a key way, the character of Tom Booker himself provides a link between the iconic vision of the American cowboy and the contemporary Montana rancher, between the national discourse of national identity and of the present-day rural U.S. As I will elaborate, this linkage has crucial relevance in the creation and presentation of a cultural model for modern, middle-class Americans. In so doing, it also reaffirms the constructed distinction between the urban and rural in the U.S. It will become apparent in this discussion, however, in much the same fashion as the point made above, that what makes Tom Booker, as a rancher/cowboy, appealing as model of cultural experience is not his access to any pre-modern logic or pattern of value but rather his characterization as the quintessential progressive subject of modernity. It is not his “western rectitude,” as one reviewer described it (Carr), that truly explains Tom’s appeal to contemporary post-industrial ex-urbanites, instead it is his being in place and his productive capabilities (i.e. his implicit embrace of the ethos of creative destruction) that explains his impact on the American cultural imaginary. The reviewer notes, in the role “Redford suggests a man innately bonded with the spacious terrain of the West…[who draws] strength from the power that seems to reside in the not especially scenic but nourishingly rugged plains and hills of Montana” (Carr). That is the sense, Redford says, that he intended to portray (qtd. in Jaehne). At the same time, he disavows an entirely New Age vision of power of the land. Rejecting the idea that “inner peace” comes solely from where a person is, Redford suggests that such peace is as much a product of what that person does, which is a modern perspective, i.e. that identity and value form through a person’s active participation in production.

“[I]nner peace is there,” Redford’s character says, “if you are living a useful life.” Booker is at peace both because he is where he should be, the place to which he is “innately bonded,” and because he is productive – improving himself, his land, his family, and the lives of others. He clearly encapsulates this idea at another point in the film, saying, peace is “waking up at the ranch in the morning and knowing what I am supposed to do that day, knowing that I am home.” This vision is not of the stereotypical, media-driven image of the cowboy; he is not a loner, not a brawler. In essence, although the two were historically one, the difference is between the cowboy and the rancher. The latter, as most people know, hardly exists today as a social or occupational type. The contemporary rancher – as the saddle tramp turned businessman – bears the full iconic weight of the archetypal American male, but the rancher is different in many important ways that actually make him more appealing as a cultural model to contemporary urbanites. Tom Booker, as a rancher, is a middle class version of a cowboy.

A film critic describes the character’s appeal in this way: “Tom Booker is a very specific man doing very specific everyday tasks in a place where he feels he belongs” (Carr). He is a man in his proper place, at “realwork” (Carr), which we can contrast with the scenes set in New York, where Annie is seen “at work” talking (almost always argumentatively) to no precise or discernible end. It is through this manifestation that the character and the contemporary image of a Montana cowboy provide models for cultural experiences. This twist to the popular iconic image of the cowboy presents a seemingly possible position into which a rural newcomer can insert him/herself; the appeal is not related to the idea of the cowboy/girl as frontier vagabond but to the rancher as centered, productive, modern, neoliberal wo/man.

The character of Annie can also be read as providing a model of cultural experience for rural gentrifiers. Although not tapping a cultural vein perhaps as deep as Tom’s cowboy, Annie, because she comes from a similar social background as they, may be an easier character with whom to identify for the urban, middle class. Many rural gentrifiers can likely connect with her cosmopolitanism and her pursuit of the cultural experience of authenticity.

These elements are demonstrated in Annie’s dogged pursuit of Tom’s help early in the film; this persistence provides further evidence of her overall hard-driving personality, which we saw established with regard to her work. However, her refusal to have Pilgrim “put down” contradicts her otherwise modern worldview. A rational person (which she appears to be in all other facets of her life) would recognize the futility of rehabilitating the horse and would dispose of it (an emphatic form of “creative destruction,” to say the least). By not doing so, Annie deploys another pattern of value that is not typical of her class and milieu, which signals that there are other ways of doing and thinking available to even the most adamant modern subjects. In this regard, and through her move to Montana (which is a direct parallel of the relocation of rural gentrifiers), Annie, like Tom Booker, is modeling the potential for reconciliation in the search for authenticity and the desire for modern American progress.


By way of conclusion, I return briefly to the idea of Tom Booker as a contemporary Montana rancher; in the hands of Redford, the director and the actor, this character is a curious but not entirely novel blend of the cowboy hero and the modern American, which only enhances Tom Booker’s position as a cultural model for the rural gentrifier. The efficacy of this model can be further understood through Peggy Barlett’s discussion in American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis. She asserts that many Americans consider the value of the contemporary American agricultural environment to rest in its ability to provide a context wherein it is possible to experience multiple facets of life that are otherwise separated into distinct analytical and practical realms within modernity – i.e. work, family, community, leisure, spirituality – as functions of the same time and place. Thus, not only is rural/agricultural work seen as “personal empowerment” and as serving a “wider societal need,” (agricultural production as progress), but it is also bound to family and to “long-term ties not only to kin but to a like-minded community” that are ignored in the urban world (Bartlett 6-7).

According to this way of thinking, there exists a profound “combination of work and family with place and a sense of attachment to land and region” (Bartlett 7), which in turn provides the context wherein “the sense of work and play, effort and leisure, flow into each other and grow out of each other” (7). What emerges from this circumstance, Barlett writes, is the belief in a “sense of daily connectedness to nature and to deeper spiritual realities embodied in the work processes” (7). Many Americans view the rural/agricultural life as an antidote for the secularization and differentiation of modern society into increasingly independent social realms. “For many urbanites and suburbanites,” she writes, “the daily realities of supervised and secularized work, commodified leisure, frequent relocation, and fluid marriages evoke an appreciation for this alternative way of life” (6-7). For many middle-class ex-urbanites, the clearest and most emphatic alternative exists in the agricultural lives and practices of rural America.

The Horse Whisperer, as I have been describing, provides an important example of this discourse. Tom is a man at peace because he is productive in his proper place. His place is proper because, as we see throughout the film, his family is there as are “his people,” the other ranching families of the area. His family – a brother, sister-in-law, and nephews – are all portrayed as complete and satisfied people as well – especially when compared to Annie, Grace, and Robert (who are presented in near-perpetual conditions of self-doubt). The peace of Tom and his family, we are lead to believe by the film, is clearly a product of their connection to the land, their work, their community, and to one another.

Barlett, like Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America, recognizes that industrialization not only had an impact on the American landscape, economy, and society but also its cultural patterns. As Marx put it, the belief in the pastoral ideal in the face of the increasingly rapid mechanization and industrialization of the U.S. in the nineteenth century “enabled the nation to continue defining its purpose as the pursuit of rural happiness while devoting itself to productivity, wealth, and power” (7). In this way, the pastoral ideal – as one of the most powerful myths with which modern people contend (see Raymond Williams) – simultaneously embodies Americans’ value of a discourse of reason and efficiency (i.e. a modern, capitalist logic) and of a discourse of tradition and responsibility to the local circumstance, thus permitting Americans to reconcile their modern goals with their pre-modern inclinations – civilization with the frontier, if you will.

The Horse Whisperer can be seen as neatly conveying these seemingly contradictory discourses. This film provides a representation of the rural/agricultural environment of south-central Montana as a cultural experience. That representation is of the social and physical landscape as a metaphoric frontier wherein a person can experience simultaneously the patience and connectedness of an authentically-integrated and a purposefully-progressive existence. Such a message articulates well with the modern worldview of the neoliberal, post-industrial middle class. It provides them with a model of how to mediate between their dissatisfaction over the limitations they feel inherent in their urban lives while it does not require that they divest themselves of the value they assign to the ideal of continued/renewed progress as enacted through “creative destruction” and individual accountability.

Texts like THW are roadmaps of sorts that facilitate the negotiation of the shift in social space between the urban and the rural domain by members of the PIMC.7 By building from and creating exhibitions of the narratives of neoliberalism, the plot enables rural gentrifiers to imagine the “New” West as a site wherein they can reconcile the conflicting cultural ideals of capitalism by simultaneously practicing forms of neoliberal “creative destruction” while also preserving a sense of connection to other important cultural ideals such as nature, community, family, and place.

The images and ideas of the film tell us that the rural and the West are the places where growth occurs not because they are a pre-modern or non-capitalist but because they operate with an appreciation of the idea that, with nature, patience (or time) is a necessary factor for regeneration. Although ostensibly presenting the difference between the urban and rural experience, Redford’s film does so in a way that turns conventional logic on its ear.

In The Horse Whisperer, the rural context is the place where violence results in regeneration, where creative destruction is the modus operandi; the urban context (commonly thought of the seat of this ultra-modern, hyper-capitalist logic and practice) harbors a violence/destruction that is stagnate, or unproductive. The film is a definitive example of the seemingly paradoxical discourse of the “New” West that presents rural life not only as the antidote of modern-capitalist existence but also as its clearest distillation.


1. Redford’s choice of location is significant for the direct connection it establishes between the northern Rocky Mountains, Montana, Park County, and the film, which can be seen as constituted by and constitutive of the discourse of the region, the state, and the country. The power of THW, as a model of cultural experience for rural gentrifiers, in part, comes from its position within a constellation of culturally-valued discourses pertaining to the rural/small-town U.S., the agriculture of the American West (i.e. ranching), and the landscape of the Rocky Mountain region. Its potency, however, is augmented by the way in which it relies upon the specific visual imagery of Park County, which indelibly binds it to the landscape of south-central Montana. In so doing, it accrues a degree of local specificity – in essence, becoming a national discursive text pertaining to both the general and the particular – and thus it offers a powerful model for the experience(s) of newcomers to Park County, as well as throughout the “New” West.

2. In this piece, I leave aside a thorough discussion of the ways in which these narratives are re/created and deployed by rural newcomers as I have more comprehensively described my ethnographic contribution on this issue elsewhere (see Hines), and as I am more concerned with marshalling data that attends to the connections between wider cultural patterns and the narrative themes within cultural texts, such as The Horse Whisperer. In discussing the character of THW and its connection to Park County, Montana, my point is not to imply that the projects of rural gentrifiers, individually or collectively, were directly inspired or catalyzed by the film. Although I could recount interviews with participants who described the influence the film had upon their decisions to migrate to the “New” West, I believe such cultural texts resonate with one another to a profound degree that exceeds the influence that can be communicated by a few ethnographic examples. Thus, rather than build an ethnographic case, I adopt a perspective developed by Geoff Mann in his piece “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” His response to the question is that there is nothing inherently “white” about the music; instead, whiteness is actually re/produced through the consumption of country music. Applying this idea to rural gentrification, we can acknowledge that while there is not an exclusive relationship between the middle class and the rural American West – as there is none between whiteness and country music – nevertheless there has, through the course of time, emerged a powerful affinity between the two, which serves to “call” white people to it. Through its representations in a variety of media, the rural American West has also been re-created as a site of full-throated expression of neoliberal capitalism; in this process, some voices have been muted while others are listened to closely. Therefore, what results is actually far from being a “collection of ‘facts’,” but instead necessitates “an a priori structure of selection, order and sense” (Mann 82). Thus, country music fans, as well as rural gentrifiers, are engaged in the search for what they already know they will find. In country music, it is an “authentic” sense of  “whiteness,” and in the “New” West it is a landscape and life they understand as informed by the logic of “creative destruction” and, ironically, also a harbor for the re/creation of connections between community, family, and nature.

3. The term “gentrification” was initially coined by Ruth Glass in London: Aspects of Change to describe the residential displacement of working-class Londoners by a new urban “gentry” (or upper-middle-class) in the 1960s and has since been applied to a wide variety of similar urban phenomena in cities around the world (see Lees, Slater, and Wyly). Beginning in the early 1990s, a similar class-based migration began in the U.S. from sub/urban to the rural context. Rural gentrification is the ongoing colonization and transformation of the formerly industrial working- and middle-class social and physical space of the rural U.S. by ex-urban, middle-class Americans. This phenomena has been documented across the country from upstate New York (see Darling) to the Sierra Nevada foothills of California (see Duane as well as Walker and Fortmann), from Traverse City, Michigan (see Hoey) to New England (see Brown-Saracino). and, of course, in the Rocky Mountains (see Cromartie and Wardwell, Jobes, Wiltsie and Wyckof, Ghose, Bryson and Wyckoff, and Hines).

4. The American West – the continental U.S. west of the 100th meridian – is best understood, as Wallace Stegner noted, as "less a place than a process” (55). The social, geographic, and environmental disparities within that physical space preclude its unity as a single social, economic, or cultural unit; these differences are exacerbated by the “archipelago,” or chain of rapidly changing “island” communities, in the midst of a relatively static, conservative, agricultural/industrial “sea.” It is this archipelago to which most people refer when they use the term “New” West. While these islands can encompass surrounding areas they tend to go by the title of their principal town, the names of which form a list of the most recognized sites in the West (Aspen, Vail, Park City, Jackson [Hole], Sun Valley, Taos, Missoula, and Bozeman).

5. The post-industrial middle class to which I refer is best understood as a contemporary expression of sociocultural forces now long at work within the most western/capitalist/modern societies. This subset of the American middle class has grown throughout the twentieth century due to the rise of consumerism and the post-WWII U.S. affluence. Perhaps a better way to describe them is a Weberian “status group” that share a certain degree of common culture but which straddles the classic Marxist divide between the laboring and capitalist classes (as indeed does the American middle class). What defines this status group is the extent to which they establish and maintain their position in society with reference to the “experiences” that they can muster. Put another way, these are people for whom their pretension to social status is partially a material one but also is equally predicated on marshalling education, knowledge, travel, and so on (i.e. “experiences”), to prove their worth relative to other members of modern-capitalist society.

6. Although it is beyond the purview of this article, I wish to make a cursory note of what it means to say that modern Americans, and especially the members of the PIMC, are driven by the pursuit of authenticity and progress (see Hines). Although seeming paradoxical, the two ideals are practically resolved by Modern subjects according to the predominant cultural logic of a post-Enlightenment world. A “modern” person is defined as one who possesses the idea that progress (i.e. personal and/or collective improvement) is an important (if not paramount) criterion of success in the contemporary world. The sources of this ideal is manifold – heralded in myriad “modern” voices during and after the Enlightenment (e.g. John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, et al.) – but it is bolstered dramatically by its resonance with the tenets of the Protestant work ethic (Weber) and the accord it drew between modernity and ultimately the culture of capitalism. To pursue progress, however, modern people must authenticate their existence with reference to some fundamental foundation. It is never enough for us to just go forward, we are compelled to seek progress from a basis in some form of authenticity.

7. My purpose here has not been to prioritize this or any other cultural text. In the way I discuss them, I do not believe that any particular document holds a privileged place relative to others. The success of ideological formations such as neoliberalism is predicated on the extent to which they colonize consciousnesses and thereby form a “structure of feeling” of a given age, which is only accomplished through the concerted influence of myriad cultural texts, presenting similar, overlapping versions of a given cultural logic. In that process, THW plays a part, especially by translating neoliberal ideological themes to members of the PIMC as potential and actual rural gentrifiers.

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