We never see Buck Brannaman actually “whisper” to a horse, but his folksy drawl is so soothing it’s no surprise that he inspired Nicholas Evans’ novel The Horse Whisperer, and informed Robert Redford’s performance in the 1998 film of the same name.
Touring the country nine months a year, conducting four-day clinics in the study of what’s (a bit strangely) called “natural horsemanship,” Brannaman preaches a gospel originally espoused by pioneers in the field Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. There’s much to-do in Buck, Cindy Meehl’s touching—if blinkered—documentary, about the touchy-feely import of Brannaman’s methods. But basically, from what I can see, it all boils down to compassion.
Conventional wisdom has always said we humans must assert violent dominance over our animals. (It’s called “breaking horses” for a reason.) This crude, common methodology isn’t established quite enough for my taste in Buck, which instead leaps headlong into a compelling, if at times hagiographic study of the real-life Horse Whisperer’s philosophies.
“Gentle and firm,” is Brannaman’s mantra. His training favors positive reinforcement and an almost supernatural patience, exuding a boundless empathy for these animals. Looking a bit like Anderson Cooper without the harsh angles, the film’s subject carries himself with a laconic, plain-spoken calm that’s compulsively watchable—even when it starts to feel like there is nothing in life that cannot be boiled down to an equestrian metaphor. He’s good company.
Clearly enraptured, director Meehl follows Brannaman on the road for a stretch, over-indulging a bit in vast panoramic western vistas that test the limits of digital photography. Buck’s got a lovely wife and several daughters, one of whom spends her summers riding with the old man from town to town, helping out with all the pretty, unruly horses.
But life wasn’t always so sanguine. Buck’s secret weapon soon arrives when we become privy to Brannaman’s troubled past. Raised by a violent, widower alcoholic named Ace (of course), the lad was rechristened “Buckshot” and sent out on the rodeo circuit, performing rope-tricks at 3 years old. When not appearing in cereal commercials, the young Buck was savagely beaten on a regular basis, at one point harrowingly recounting a freezing winter night spent sleeping in the doghouse, cowering in terror of his volatile father.
Brannaman’s older brother “Smokie” was dragged into the family business as well, yet remains conspicuously absent from the documentary. Eventually, a friendly football coach and the county sheriff intervened, as the children’s welts and scars became impossible to ignore. It was in a foster home that Brannaman found his sense of purpose, recounting a simple—yet staggeringly effective—anecdote about receiving a gift of work gloves that seems to have informed his every decision since.
As far as Buck is concerned, there’s no real difference between training a horse and raising a child. Growing up treated like a trained animal himself, Brannaman has a natural kinship with his charges. He preaches positivity, within clearly set boundaries. Why frighten a helpless creature when you can encourage them instead? There’s a common-sense to Brannaman’s approach that is refreshing. There’s something deeply moving about watching a man transcend his tragic childhood and put the hard lessons learned to use for the good of others.
So it’s tough not to feel like a bit of a piss-head for pointing out that the crowd-pleasing Buck (it won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) could have benefited from just a wee bit of skepticism. This isn’t just a love letter; at times it feels like full-on fellatio. There’s a brusque side of Brannaman that his daughter only hints at glancingly, and we in the audience are left to wonder what it must be like for a family when Dad is on the road 40 weeks a year.
The film’s climax involves a savage stud, now kicking, biting and headed for the glue factory thanks to the negligence of a flighty owner who gets way more than she bargained for when she asks Buck for his professional opinion. It’s an amazing sequence, with Buck’s simmering outrage and identification with the mistreated animal hitting a crescendo that he can barely contain beneath his carefully modulated, polite public persona.
It might have been the first scene of a great movie; instead it’s the last scene of a good one.
Director: Cindy Meehl
Starring: Buck Brannaman