BUCK movie review

by Erin Thursby
Works of fiction often have some sort of basis in reality. The documentary Buck gives us a portrait of Buck Brannaman, the man who inspired the book and movie The Horse Whisperer.
The first-time director Cindy Meehl, delivers a touching film that never gets as hokey as it could, given Buck’s life story and all the people whose lives have been changed for the better by his philosophies. While it’s plain that Meehl greatly admires Buck, she smartly pulls back enough to ground the documentary. The film won the U.S. documentary audience award at Sundance.
Before Dan “Buckshot” Brannaman was famous for gentling horses and teaching others to do the same in workshops all over the country, he was in the spotlight as a little boy. His father taught he and his brother rope tricks which they performed on TV and elsewhere. (Buck’s made the Guinness World Book of Records for his feats). But there was a darker side to the tiny, smiling buckaroos, doing their rope tricks blindfolded. Buck’s perfectionist father beat them regularly for any mistake. Eventually Buck and his brother were removed from the home, but these events made a lasting impression on Buck.
Later, as a young man, he saw one of Ray Hunt’s horse clinics. Since Buck was already a horseman, he approached the clinic with cynicism, not believing he would learn anything. But before long Buck was attending every clinic as a spectator, hanging on to every word and watching every move. He became a disciple of Hunt and natural horsemanship.
Then he began teaching others, though, by his own admission both in the movie and in an interview, not as nearly as well as he does today.
“As I would get more confident, rather than just parroting what I learned from Ray Hunt, my own personality and my own take sort of entered into the equation,” says Brannaman.
Buck has spent a lot of time honing his personality, which is a strange thing to say about a man who comes across as so genuine. At the beginning of his career he was extremely shy and could barely meet the eyes of the folks who came to his horse clinics.
What’s fascinating is that Buck has constructed his own narrative, distilled it into the talking points that are his story. We all do this to some extent. We all have stories that define who we are, provided they are true. Sometimes those stories are told by family members, by friends. But we can tell these stories too. Buck applies all of these life lessons to horse whispering. He’s good at it because he knows himself.
Horse problems, says Brannaman, are really people problems.
The psychology behind horse whispering will leave most people (who aren’t familiar with natural horsemanship) a little stunned. We sometimes think of cowboys as hard-bitten rather than sensitive souls. And, yet here’s Buck, telling a horse owner that her horse’s behavior is a reflection of her own life. Similarly there’s a lot of analogy between Buck and the horses. He understands their unreasoning fear because he’s been afraid. He knows how to earn trust because his trust was earned. Those who saved him from his abusive father whispered him, so he knows how to whisper horses.
In the movie he jokes on the phone to his wife that things went well because he didn’t make anyone cry at his clinic. Later, we get to see the emotional response that one owner has while he talks about her problem horse.
“It’s a real discovery about oneself,” he says, “And the horses can bring out some pretty strong emotions in people.”
Branaman’s daily routine is captured, with him spending months away from home. Despite the loneliness of such a life, he seems content, because he’s doing something he loves and perhaps because that loneliness is part of being a real cowboy.
Buck isn’t a ground-breaking flick, but it does the job, working as a documentary portrait. Even if you aren’t into horses, there’s enough about Buck’s philosophy and the man himself to keep things interesting. You should go into the movie realizing that, as Buck says, “it’s more about the people than it is about the horses.”
The movie might be called simplistic, but that’s part of the charm of Buck. At the core of the film is an uplifting tale of a man who took his own pain and vulnerability and made it into something helpful and strong.