There’s nothing quite so satisfying as a hard-luck story that turns into a feel-good triumph. It’s better still when the hard-luck story is true and the man telling it is an amiable, gentlemanly cowpoke who has made his living stroking foreheads and talking pretty to ponies. The horsey Buck Brannaman is the gooey and charm-filled center of director Cindy Meehl’s documentary about horse sense and human sense, Buck.
When the film opens, Brannaman shows how, through patience and empathy, he has become a widely renowned expert in his field as the “Horse Whisperer” who can communicate with his animals without resorting to cruelty and domination. He travels the country with his horses in tow offering riding clinics to starry-eyed students who hang on his every word, many of whom are dealing with cantankerous, willful animals. With a technique that borders on the mystical, using gentle urging on the reins, some fabric flags, and a great deal of patience, Brannaman is able to take even the wildest horse and transform it into an obedient, devoted compatriot, an extension of its rider’s body.
But Brannaman’s backstory makes his unique gift all the more engaging. As a child, Brannaman and his brother Bill were trick riders and expert rope twirlers, pint-sized Western showmen who performed around the country and even landed on a breakfast cereal TV spot. But beneath their all-American boyishness and TV-ready charisma, the siblings harbored a dark family secret of abuse at the hands of their father. When their mother died, the violence intensified until a school coach saw the ugly welts on the little boys’ bodies and stepped in. What Brannaman learned as a child — that cruelty yields obedience and fear but not love — played out in his choice of career. Brannaman rejected all of the lessons about force and physical discipline that his father taught him, instead teaching horses with firm but gentle guidance. The film points out an essential paradox in the lives of people who work with animals: Their motives are often at odds with their presumed affection for the creatures they spend so much time among. And he makes a convincing case for the injustice of using might and violence if your mission is communion with another creature, which becomes especially true when you see the baby-like fragility and panic of the smallest colts with whom Brannaman interacts.
And there is wisdom in his horse divination too; he sees the behavior of the animals he instructs as a reflection of their owners’ psychology. As he says, he’s helping horses with people problems. Various subjects testify to the effectiveness of Buck’s methods, but the most charismatic spokesman for his methodology may be the Electric Horseman himself, Robert Redford, who hired Brannaman as a consultant on his film version of the book Buck inspired, The Horse Whisperer. Brannaman quickly went from being a mere advisor to becoming a body double, trainer, and spiritual guide to the art of horsemanship on the film, winning the jaded Hollywood types over with his homespun ways.
His childhood traumas aside, Buck is a pretty interesting fella. He seems to live most of his time in a small trailer he tows along behind his car, traversing the country teaching strangers how to relate to their horses. His wife, who stays at home, is a rough-hewn, outdoorsy beauty in the vein of Sissy Spacek who surrounds herself with a mini-army of dogs. Brannaman has a daughter too, a chip off the old block who mucks stalls and cooks breakfast as they travel like a gypsy caravan across the country. His foster mother, who rescued Brannaman and his brother from their abusive father, is a tiny, wrinkled firecracker who never met a joke she didn’t like.
John Ford couldn’t come up with Western characters as beguiling as these. Then there are the scenes of vast blue skies, empty land as far as the eye can see, and ranches, barns, and horse folk who seem to occupy a time and place different from our own.
You might need at least a passing interest in horses to really appreciate the character study and small, but important, lessons of Buck. First-timer Meehl could have been more merciless with editing, and her film does tend to overstay its welcome once the essential dichotomy between Buck’s past and Buck’s present is established. There isn’t a real story arch in this documentary, which is mostly content to follow along where its protagonist takes us. But like its protagonist, Buck offers a good-natured amble through one man’s compelling life path.