In a manner of speaking, “horsing around” is Buck Brannaman’s business, since he crisscrosses the country teaching four-day horse training clinics nine months out of the year. But as the schedule implies, no one takes training horses more seriously than Brannaman, the primary inspiration for Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer. Brannaman is the subject of Cindy Meehl’s documentary Buck, marketed by IFC Films as a “Sundance Selection” since it was screened at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.
Redford, who directed the film version of The Horse Whisperer, appears in Buck to describe his take on Brannaman’s skill, demeanor, and overall mystique. He’s one of several gobsmacked individuals to attempt to describe a man that, as Meehl ultimately understands, has to be seen in action to be believed. In extensive footage shot during his clinics, Brannaman walks around wearing his “Madonna mic” and demonstrates how a properly trained horse can and will follow a human’s almost imperceptible physical prompting; as such he offers a panacea for equine abuse.
Brannaman’s intolerance of animal abuse turns out to be empathic. Meehl lays out for us the origins of this unique character in the American Western cultural landscape, beginning with his career as a child performer under a stage dad who was a raging alcoholic. Alongside his brother “Smokie,” “Buckshot” Brannaman was trained from the age of three to perform rope tricks, and became a professional trick roper at the age of six, appearing in rodeos and on television. Behind the wholesome family image was a horrifying truth: the brothers were subject to physical and emotional abuse. Today, Buck puts it plainly: “My dad beat us unmercifully…He was a terrifying person.”
Foster care rescued Buck, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see a positive rebellion in the boy’s gravitation to horses, where he found “some safety and some companionship.” At least as important is what Buck offered the horses, and their owners, a philosophy that preaches to be “gentle in what you do; firm in how you do it.” Meehl provides plenty of evidence that Brannaman practices what he preaches; he spares the whip and by no means spoils the horses. In fact, he insists, “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”
Indeed, we see Brannaman providing therapy for horse owners, one of whom is reduced to tears at the realization that her untamable horse is a reflection of her own emotional inadequacies. Even in the face of an essentially insurmountable challenge, Brannaman shows a grace that looks nothing like defeat as he patiently guides the violent animal back into its trailer. Though one acquaintance refers to Brannaman as a “tortured soul” and the man himself refers to his work as a “life of solitude,” “Buck” gives its hero his due as a proud papa, loving son to his foster mother, and a husband with a sense of humor (who confesses to culling marriage advice from Oprah).
First-time filmmaker Meehl delivers a documentary as plain-spoken as her subject, who seems to have de facto creative control over the film. The film’s main failing is its refusal to explain what happened to Buck’s brother or, for that matter, their father (though family photos in the end credits do include glimpses of the adult Smokie). Overall, both Buck and Buck endorse sensitive care for the voiceless, whether they be horses or cowed children.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]