It’s too soon to call this year’s Oscar for documentary, but here is a prime candidate: “Buck,” a character study featuring a real character.
This film, which bowed locally at the Seattle International Film Festival, is one of those documentaries that make the average Hollywood picture look
Buck Brannaman is an experienced horse trainer, so well known in his field that he might just be the real-life “Horse Whisperer” immortalized on film by Robert Redford. (Brannaman was a consultant on the movie, and Redford speaks here about working together.)
For most of the year, Buck travels around the country, giving clinics on horse training. He rejects old theories about “breaking” a horse with severe discipline or violence, in favor of a mutual relationship that establishes who’s boss and sets up repeated gestures and actions. He doesn’t whisper to the horse, but he listens to it.
The scenes of Buck in a corral, walking a horse around and setting the boundaries, are fascinating to watch. You don’t have to know anything about the horse world to get it. In fact, for the uninitiated, the movie is a rather remarkable introduction to this subculture.
The real secret of director Cindy Meehl’s film is that Buck himself has a story as interesting as anything that happens in his classes. After a few dropped hints in interviews, Buck begins to talk about his childhood, a nightmare of abuse at the hands of a violent father.
As children, Buck and his older brother (an oddly absent presence in the film, aside from a quick endnote) formed a rope-trick act, which brought them a measure of success on the rodeo circuit and even a TV commercial.
But their father’s response to this precocious success was to beat them whenever he felt they fell short of perfection, which was apparently all the time.
Knowing this, we can see that when Buck speaks to his (mostly adoring) audiences about horse-training, and how he stresses that fear and violence have no role in teaching or learning, he ain’t just talkin’ about horses. This is horse-training philosophy as autobiography. But then most philosophies are.
What emerges from this portrait is a tremendously sensitive individual who is nevertheless a tall-walking, slow-drawling embodiment of the American Westerner. It’s as though John Wayne got his master’s degree in psychology: an authentic cowpoke who talks about his feelings. For that reason alone, “Buck” is hard to resist.
An engrossing documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life “horse whisperer” who travels the horse-training circuit every year, giving his philosophy of understanding horses instead of “breaking” them. By delving into Buck’s abusive childhood, the movie makes clear that his wisdom comes out of his own hard-won observations of violence and fear.
Rated: PG, for subject matter.
Showing: Harvard Exit.