Winner of the audience documentary award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Buck is an engaging and moving tale of a cowboy who has figured out how to keep life moving smoothly, simply by listening to what it's telling him.
The cowboy is Buck Brannaman and, by some accounts, he was the real-life model for the title character in Nicholas Evans' The Horse Whisperer. Indeed, he wound up as a consultant and stunt double in Robert Redford's film of Evans' novel.
But as director Cindy Meehl shows in Buck (opening in limited release Friday 6/17/11), Brannaman's wisdom has been hard-won, starting with an abusive father who whipped him and his brother so severely that the sheriff had to take them away from him.
Brannaman never wanted to do anything but be a cowboy; indeed, he was a professional trick roper before he was 5, appearing in a TV cereal commercial as a boy and playing the rodeo circuit with his brother as children. As a young man, he happened upon clinics by Ray Hunt, a guru of a system known as Natural Horsemanship, and studied at the man's feet, learning his techniques and, eventually, becoming a one of the most sought-after horse trainers himself.
As the film shows, Brannaman, who is married with children, spends nine months of each year on the road conducting his four-day clinics. He lives out of his horse trailer/camper, traveling from ranch to ranch, occasionally crossing paths with his wife when she chooses to come on the road with him, taking his youngest daughter with him for a few weeks each summer.
His lessons are simple and to the point: The horse has his own nature and way of communicating. It learns behaviors from the human. A problematic horse undoubtedly has a problematic human to blame. Horses want simple, straightforward communication and signals; they don't need to be beaten or broken to be trained. It's a matter of understanding how a horse thinks and learning to speak its language.
Brannaman's own life as a child was horrifying. His mother protected him from his drunken, abusive father - but she died when Brannaman was a child and he spent several years at his father's mercy. Yet he learned methods of horse training that went against the violent approach that was the norm, even as he feared that he might not overcome the violent environment in which he was reared.
On film, he comes across as confident, unassuming and empathetic. His patience with horses seems endless; his patience with mule-headed humans slightly less so. He is seemingly a natural teacher, whose lessons about horse training obviously have a much broader application.
Buck is as engrossing as a documentary can be, a film that will touch you emotionally even as you watch the action in fascination. Buck Brannaman ends up as someone whose wisdom is aspirational for those he meets, someone who rarely fails to come up with a common-sense solution to problems that appear insoluble.
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