“Buck” is the amazing portrait of a true-life horse whisperer: Buck Brannaman, a genuine cowboy who was horribly abused as a boy and gradually turned himself into a horse-training guru. His first involvement in Hollywood was as a consultant to the film “The Horse Whisperer,” directed by Robert Redford in 1998. His methods were quickly proven effective—he recounts waiting eight hours on set for something he got a horse to do in 15 minutes—and now people travel all over the country to attend his training clinics.
First-time director Cindy Meehl has crafted a pitch-perfect documentary about Buck: the story never lags or loses its emotional momentum, and is funny, touching, and inspirational in all the right ways. We get plenty of Buck’s hard-luck backstory—his father beat him and his brother relentlessly after his mother died, and eventually the two were plucked away and placed in a loving foster home. A trick rider from the age of three, Buck was around horses his whole life, and attributes his sixth-sense abilities to his intimate understanding of what it’s like to be truly afraid of another person. His emotional honesty throughout the film is another revelation; who’d have thought a real-life cowboy would be so in touch with his feelings?
Though all the praise of Buck can get slightly repetitive at first, once the film shows us his techniques in action it’s hard not to be left speechless. We watch him saddle and ride horses that have never been “broken in” before in just a few minutes. He advises his students on everything from proper riding form to how to communicate with their horses non-verbally. He really does seem to understand horse psychology, and there were audible gasps from the audience every few minutes as yet another miracle played out on screen.
The film’s climax comes when a woman with an unruly stallion shows up at one of Buck’s clinics and her horse attacks one of his assistants. It’s a terrifying moment; we’re so used to seeing horses as utilities in the movies, like cars with legs, just waiting for the hero to hop on and race into the sunset. It’s easy to forget that horses have a mind of their own, and the muscle to back it up when they don’t want to cooperate. After the incident, Buck tells his students in no uncertain terms that in this case, “the human failed the animal.” It’s a powerful lesson.
I’m delighted that Sundance Selects picked up the rights to “Buck” at the Sundance Festival earlier this year; everyone should see this film, no exceptions! As Buck repeatedly emphasizes, his lessons don’t just apply to horses, but to all areas of life. Maybe if everyone in this country had a good dose of Buck wisdom, we’d all be a little bit better off.