Thinking about Cave of Forgotten Dreams reminded me of a movie that's really never left me since I saw it. It's not a movie about horses any more than Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about horses, but horses appear in Michael Clayton just as powerfully as they appeared in Herzog's documentary. And two years after seeing it, I still think of those horses.
Michael Clayton is an interesting and complex legal thriller starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton. Among its plot points are a lawyer who may or may not have had a nervous breakdown, a defense attorney who may or may not be corrupt, a death that may or may not have been a suicide, and a car explosion that may or may not have been intentional. Clooney plays the title character, an attorney with a gambling problem who's been working as the "fixer" for a high-powered New York law firm. He's called in to clean up messes caused by clients or members of the firm. Because his own life is a wreck, he can hardly judge the lives of those he bails out of ugly situations, but it's wearying work.
Michael Clayton depends on a four-day flashback that makes up most of the film. That flashback begins during a scene with horses and we return to the same horses when the story has caught up to the present day. It's a simple scene. The tired, burned-out Michael Clayton pulls over on a country road and gets out of his car when his attention is drawn to a hillside. He walks up the hill. There, three haltered horses stand side by side at the corner of their pasture. He approaches them, lifting his arms a little, palm up as if to tell them he won't harm them, and then he just stands there, looking at them. They look at him (and they really do). The camera cuts to each horse's face, then pans across them as a group. There's an occasional cut back to Clayton, whose expression is that of a troubled man seeking solace, understanding, redemption, peace.
The thing is, I don't know if the horses were in the original script or they were added by the director. What I'm sure of, though, is that whoever included them knew something about horses. It's why they chose to use them rather than, say, deer. It seems to me they knew that looking eye to eye at horses can strip you back to yourself if you've added too many layers or bring you back to yourself if you've forgotten who you are.
Sometimes I just step back from my mare and I look at her. She looks at me. I look at her. I don't do it enough, but I do it. Each time, I get that subtle recalibration that reminds me who I am, whether I like it or not. That's exactly what happens in Michael Clayton, and that's why I'll always think of it as a horse movie.