You may think you already know Buck Brannaman. His is the story you've heard over and over again: a man with an uncanny ability to train — to seemingly communicate with — even the wildest young horses. He's the inspiration behind The Horse Whisperer and a living legend in the equine world. But in the buzzed-about new documentary named for Brannaman, there's a lot more than just horse sense going on: There's triumph and tragedy and redemption. It's a human story in horse's clothing. You could call it predictable — that is, if it weren't true.
Buck follows Brannaman through his daily life working as a horse trainer and running clinics on his methods all over the expansive American West. Week after week, we follow Buck to a new ranch, where loads of new characters flock to see the master at work. Buck doesn't break horses though. He starts them. At every clinic, he spots the rowdiest colts and, before a crowd, turns them docile and mountable in no more than a few minutes. His horsemanship alone is a spectacle, and Buck could almost survive as a film based solely on the poetry of Brannaman's ability. There's more to the story, though.
Brannaman's patience and gentleness came as the result of a violent childhood of abuse and separation. "When something is scared for their life, I understand that," says Brannaman, whose father brutally beat him and his brother until a school gym teacher finally noticed the bruises all over Buck's back. His experience has made him adamant that when a horse is wild and dangerous, it usually has less to do with the horse and more to do with its owner. That doesn't sit well with some, and when one dangerous horse strikes and bites a man in the face, sending the man to the hospital and the horse to be put down, it's the owner who receives Buck's reproach. "Your horse is a mirror to your soul," says Brannaman. "Sometimes you might not like what you see ... sometimes you will."
Buck Brannaman isn't you and he isn't me. He's better. With all the footage of his clinics, it's easy to feel that the experience of watching Buck is something of a clinic itself. It's a film with undeniable schmaltz, but those scenes where we see a sandy-haired Brannaman spending time with his wife and daughter, talking about watching Oprah, or driving alone from town to town are the ones that keep Buck firmly on the ground.
Directed by newcomer Cindy Meehl, the film played well at Sundance, in part for its wall-to-wall beauty in scenes of rural Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, and California. It's effortless in its approach and utterly inspiring. If you've come for art-house angst, addiction, or exposé — get off your high horse. You will only be embittered by Buck Brannaman's ability to overcome his appalling past without any kind of pretension.