An examination of the life of acclaimed 'horse whisperer' Buck Brannaman, who recovered from years of child abuse to become a well-known expert in the interactions between horses and people.
Though Buck Brannaman exudes an 'aw shucks’ aura and seems to positively glow in a dusty golden haze all the time, he also knows how to work his paying customers as well as he does his horses. By that definition, Cindy Meehl’s documentary on 'the real horse whisperer’ reflects its subject precisely.
First-time filmmaker Meehl follows Brannaman as he plies his very special brand of horsemanship from sea to shining sea. She alternates between building up the mythology of the Brannaman 'brand’ – the last great cowboy, the quietly-spoken but magnetic man of the land, and so on – with a deconstructionist’s view on how the abused childhood Buck survived has formed the empathetic man he is today. Meehl seems entirely smitten by her subject matter (she created her production company, Cedar Creek, to get this film made) and her blind adoration is a double-edged sword, imbuing her film with tremendous warmth but also nullifying any hint of objectivity.
She enlists Buck’s satisfied customers, ranchers, fellow stockmen, and America’s other favourite cowboy, 'The Sundance Kid’ himself, Robert Redford, to help paint a picture of a man whose gentle touch and philosophical monotone do more to tame a horse than a whip and bit ever could. Redford’s account of Brannaman’s contribution to a key scene in his film The Horse Whisperer (1998) plays like a DVD special feature. (It is very likely you will be sick of the term 'horse whisperer’ by the end credits, so loosely and lovingly is it bandied about.)
Buck is a charming film, pleasing and life-affirming in the same way that most modern docs aren’t. There is no denying that in this age of factual-filmmaking bravado, where directors insert themselves into message movies to bash home their agendas, Buck tells a good man’s story and tells it with grace. When Buck starts spouting bumper-sticker gems like "Your horses are a mirror to your soul", the man’s dignity gives his words far more weight than they deserve.
Meehl’s film is never particularly revelatory, though. She skims over or completely ignores elements that would have broadened its perspective. Where is Buck’s brother, who features so centrally in archive footage of them as boyhood rope-trick performers? Who are the other exponents of this approach to equine interaction? (Buck is but one of many who follow such methods but the film would have you believe he is the sole practitioner.) Buck’s daughter, who tags along with her dad for much of his 9-month-long road trips, is also given little voice.
Brannaman’s story seems all told after an hour, so it was fortuitous that an unbreakable 3-year-old horse should appear to provide the conflict sorely needed to give the film fresh impetus. Buck’s efforts to whisper a horse that he calls 'As close to a predator that this species gets" make for fascinating and frightening moments. (One of Buck’s offsiders has his head torn open when the beast attacks.)
The later scenes will send patrons out on a high and bolster their sense of worthiness, knowing that they have shared in the story of a fine man who rose above his tough past. Meehl’s film, drenched in down-home spirit, wants to win over the audience with a well spun yarn told in muted tones. Much like Buck himself.