A passel of horse sense from plain-spoken ‘whisperer’
‘Buck’’ is as foursquare as its title, but it keeps backing into mysteries and disasters. A documentary by first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl, it takes as its subject a horse trainer named Buck Brannaman, a plain-spoken cowpoke in his mid-40s whose communion with animals is almost holy. People speak of Brannaman in tones reserved for saints and mad monks. He is, in fact, the “horse whisperer’’ on whom the 1995 Nicholas Evans novel was based, and he served as consultant on the 1998 Robert Redford film adaptation as well.
You could excuse Brannaman for having a swelled head, but fame and other people seem to be a sideshow to him, part of the larger world beyond the horse pen and thus of little interest. Nine months out of the year, he leaves his wife and kids to travel around the country, giving clinics in which he gets right into the heads of horses and their owners.
In the process, a viewer comes to understand how much violence is usually visited upon the equine species in our efforts to tame it. One ranch owner weeps as she tells Meehl the horse-breaking methods she grew up accepting as normal — restraints attached to hooves yanking heads down with each step — and how watching Brannaman in action just once made her see the light. Buck himself admits, “A lot of the time I’m not helping people with horse problems. I’m helping horses with people problems.’’
The man’s mythology precedes him, and it’s the movie’s failing that we don’t understand how or whether he uses that mythology because he knows it’s good business. In any event, Brannaman’s identification with horses runs deep. “Buck’’ details a childhood of rodeo-circuit celebrity — with his older brother he was a championship roper who appeared in a national Sugar Pops ad — interspersed with savage beatings from his stage-manager father. Eventually the boys were placed with foster parents, and Buck fell under the spell of legendary horse trainer Ray Hunt. When the latter died, Buck says, “I shed way more tears for him than I did my dad.’’
Meehl talks to a lot of people, including Redford, but the brother never appears nor is his absence explained, another dropped stitch in a novice moviemaker’s sampler. “Buck’’ is unfocused and draggy at points, but it’s still a crowd pleaser because Brannaman is and because we see how quickly his approach gets results. Time and again he enters a corral with a balky colt and, using gestures and bearing and an attitude of absolute trust, calms it into not just docility but something close to interspecies collaboration.
Brannaman’s technique is so effective that when it doesn’t work, it’s a tragedy for all involved. Late in the film, he’s brought a horse whose early disabilities have been exacerbated by a careless owner, resulting in an animal described by one onlooker as a “predator.’’ That sounds extreme until you see the horse lunge at a trainer and bite right through his hat, drawing blood from his forehead.
There’s not much you can do with an animal like that, and Brannaman lets his bitterness show as he verbally berates the owner, reducing her to tears of self-recrimination. “A human failed that horse,’’ he rails afterward, adding the bleak observation that “your horses are mirrors to all your souls.’’ Then and only then does “Buck’’ touch on the darker isolation at its subject’s core — Brannaman’s belief that, on some level, he himself may be more horse than human.