Enjoyed for its surface pleasures, The Electric Horseman is a diverting romantic adventure servicing such quintessentially ’70s themes as the dangers of rampant corporate control, the exploitive nature of mass media, the nobility of nonviolent rebellion, and the travails of rugged individualism—it’s a popcorn movie offering ideas in addition to star power and visual spectacle. The title character is Sonny Steele (Robert Redford), a self-loathing former rodeo champion who works as a spokesman for a brand of breakfast cereal. Shuffling through a degrading life of personal appearances, photo shoots, store openings, and the like, Sonny is perpetually drunk and rarely on time or prepared, so he’s on the verge of getting fired from his cushy gig.
Meanwhile, the corporation that employs him has adopted as its mascot a retired racehorse called Rising Star, which is valued at $12 million. When Sonny arrives in Las Vegas for an event at which he’s expected to ride Rising Star during a garish stage show, he realizes that the magnificent animal has been drugged to ensure compliance, which offends Sonny’s long-suppressed nobility. Strapping on his lightbulb-festooned costume—hence the movie’s title—Sonny climbs onto Rising Star’s saddle and rides the horse right out of a casino and into the surrounding desert, stealing the animal with the goal of setting it free. The purpose of this grand gesture, of course, is redeeming Sonny’s sense of honor and self-worth.
Yet because this is a Sydney Pollack movie—the fifth of seven pictures the fine director made with his pal Redford—The Electric Horseman also includes a love story. Hallie Martin (Jane Fonda) is an ambitious TV reporter who spots Sonny’s bad attitude well before he steals Rising Star, and then dogs him once his actions elevate Sonny to folk-hero status. Eventually, Hallie joins Sonny on the trail and they evolve from idealistically opposed sparring partners to simpatico lovers. As sometimes happens in Pollack’s pictures, the romantic angle feels forced and unnecessary, partially because it slows the momentum of the main narrative and partially because the script contorts itself to make Sonny and Hallie equally interesting. Although Redford seems completely comfortable in his Western-iconoclast role, Fonda struggles to mesh the authentic and ersatz aspects of her contrived character. Worse, since the real love story in the movie is between Sonny and Rising Star—by escaping the corporate system together, they redeem each other—the Hallie character’s presence is ultimately superfluous.
Nonetheless, The Electric Horseman is filled with glamorous filmmaking and terrific acting. Redford dominates, naturally, though Fonda seizes strong moments whenever she can, and crusty Western types including Wilford Brimley and singer-songwriter Willie Nelson (in his first dramatic performance) lend credibility. On a fundamental level, The Electric Horseman is hypocritical horseshit—an expensive studio movie railing against money-loving corporations—but somewhere amid the hollow posturing is a sweet fable about freedom.
The Electric Horseman: FUNKY