Buck: A man and his horses

Well, here’s a lovely little documentary surprise. Buck didn’t exactly fly in under the radar, it won the Audience Documentary Award at Sundance earlier this year, but documentaries sometimes have a hard time grabbing peoples’ attention. That goes double for a documentary like Buck which is as gentle and unassuming in its storytelling as the man at its core: a master horseman and cowboy who eschews traditional methods involving breaking a horse through intimidation and fear in favor of empathy, intuition and understanding. One of the inspirations for the book and subsequent movie adaptation The Horse Whisperer, Buck Brannaman is even more remarkable when you find out the dark past he had to survive in order to become the man he is.

As Buck himself is fond of saying, rather than helping people with horse problems, he helps horses with people problems. It’s that kind of folksy mental jujitsu that allows Buck to feel what the horse is feeling, to empathize and to coax the horse rather than cowing the animal into submission. It’s the secret that makes Buck’s 4-day clinics a popular draw all around the country and it’s also what helps make Buck the movie as much about people as it is about horses. It’s that human element which transforms Buck from being a good niche documentary about an interesting man into a great one with more universal appeal.

Along with his older brother Smokie, Brannaman was a popular draw along the rodeo circuit as a boy trick roper in the late ’60s. His secret, however, was that his childhood was a mental and physical minefield dominated by an alcoholic and viciously abusive father. Nevertheless, Buck was unbroken by his upbringing. Perhaps having to be able to anticipate his father’s stormy moods in order to survive, he developed an intuition and a deep well of empathy for others, two skills he would ultimately learn to apply to his life as a real cowboy training horses. Rather than submit to the horror and become the same kind of monster his father was, Buck turned it around and became a better man.

In a way, there’s an interesting parallel between Buck’s father and horses, particularly the ones that haven’t been trained. We see them as pliant, placid creatures who live to serve, but really they’re large, unpredictable and potentially dangerous animals. That one wrong move could lead to serious injury or even death is made abundantly clear late in the film when Buck tries to train a wild colt whose upbringing had been as difficult in many ways as Buck’s own. Just as Buck seems to be making progress, gently guiding the creature to learn not to be afraid, the powerful horse suddenly turns on its rider. The guy comes away only needing a few stitches, but it’s a horrifying and dramatic moment that could’ve ended much worse and it’s a quick reminder of what a horse is capable of.

Filled out with interviews featuring the folks who know Brannaman personally, professionally and as clients – Robert Redford adds some star wattage as the director and star of The Horse Whisperer – the brisk 88 minutes of Buck are spent mostly listening to Brannaman talk about his life and methods or simply watching him in action. He’s sensible and honest and direct and watching him work magic on difficult horses is amazing.

If it was just about horses though, Buck wouldn’t mean nearly as much as it does. It’s an uplifting human story because of Brannaman himself. His difficult upbringing adds to the story, but he’d be a fascinating character even if he’d had an ordinary childhood. There’s plenty to be inspired by just in the way he handles animals and in the positive results he gets through love rather than fear.

Interestingly, there’s a quiet dark streak to Brannaman that the film only hints at. By all accounts he’s happily married with two lovely daughters, and yet he spends most of the year on the road by himself. Soft spoken and funny and likable as he is, he still seems very much a lone wolf cowboy type and it’s tempting to assume he still bears the scars given him by his father.

For her part, first time documentarian Cindy Meehl has the good sense to just stand back and observe without ever trying too hard to drive the message home. Buck speaks for himself and she lets him. Meanwhile, David Robbins contributes a thoughtful, quiet, folky/bluesy/country guitar score that suits the subject perfectly. From top to bottom, Buck is a winner.

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated