The documentary Buck, a portrait of horse trainer Buck Brannaman, who inspired Nicholas Evans' 1995 novel The Horse Whisperer and served as a consultant on Robert Redford's film version, might be the most surprising film I've seen this year.
An appreciative profile of a "horse whisperer" was not something I was excited to see, but first-time director Cindy Meehl's film, which won the audience award for docs at this year's Sundance Film Festival, takes on the no-nonsense personality of its subject, a soft-spoken man who dismisses any mystical import others might apply to his skills: "A lot of people want it all to be fuzzy and warm and cosmic," Brannaman says. "But it's no different with a horse than with a kid."
Brannaman is full of folksy wisdom. Stuff like: "A lot of times rather than helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems." But he backs it up with a patient approach to horse training that eschews the concept of "breaking" the animals and the violence that term suggests.
Buck is filled with admiring testimonials from ranchers and other trainers, along with Redford, who describes how Brannaman became a bigger part of his film than he had intended. But Meehl finds the real story rooted in Brannaman's past as a childhood rope-trick performer with a violently abusive backstage father. As a small child, he confesses, he was so terrified of his father that he would beg his mother not to leave for work.
Meehl withholds this biographical information for a while and finally incorporates it in pieces, the film deriving much of its meaning from the contrast and connection between Brannaman's rough childhood and his unusually gentle training style. You see why Brannaman takes the way people treat the horses they own or are training as a revelation of their own character and why he seems to identify so much with an animal often trained through aggressive, physical tactics.
And while he isn't demonstrative about it, Brannaman is willing to make the connection explicit, comparing his own fearful reticence as a child meeting a foster parent for the first time to his approach with horses: "It's like a colt that's had some trouble. You don't have to do much to make them suspicious. Just even move a little bit in a way they don't understand and — that quick — they think they need to save themselves."
Meehl's delicate hand at using this material makes Buck deeply affecting without straining too hard. Its lessons about patience and compassion feel legitimate.
And Meehl smartly — or, perhaps, luckily — steers the film to a tough final act, where Brannaman encounters a troubled colt — "a problem child ... you can't hold it against him for how his life has been" — that might be unreachable.
Opening Friday, July 1st