Perhaps the last of the true cowboys, or another breed entirely, the story of Buck Brannaman is as thought-provoking as it is beautiful.
In Cindy Meehl‘s debut documentary, her subject Buck Brannaman is a quiet and thoughtful man, teaching horses and humans to cooperate. ”Your horse is a mirror to your soul”, says Buck “and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will.” One wonders what Buck, ostensibly an open book in this documentary, would make of his own tale, which bares (almost) all about his life, philosophy and the way he relates to humans and horses both.
Raised by an abusive father, a situation that worsened with the death of his mother, Dan “Buck” Brannaman began his career as a child, soon becoming a champion trick roper, and appearing in various commercials with his brother. Yet horses were his true calling, and he was inspired by the natural horsemanship movement, one in which communication and mutual understanding with the animals took priority over any notions of trying to “break them in”. Buck’s recent life has been one of a motivational speaker, horse trainer and the inspiration for Nicholas Sparks’ The Horse Whisperer, so much so that he was later used as a consultant and trainer on the Robert Redford film of the same name.
Much like the acclaimed Bill Cunningham New York, Cindy Meehl’s documentary takes a fascinating journey into the world of true individual. Like Cunningham, Buck has dedicated his life to a singular pursuit, but his outlook on life is what will fascinate most. ”A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helpin’ horses with people problems,” muses Buck. There are times when the whole film feels a bit like one of those impulse buy motivational flip-books that are found on the counters of all good book stores, but it becomes evident very quickly that Buck is, in the words of interviewee Robert Redford, “the real deal”.
Buck has emerged from a place of personal hardship to become an inspiration to others. ”If you find a way to fix this thing right here”, comes Buck’s homespun wisdom ” it’ll make you better. It’ll make you better in areas you didn’t think were related to horses.” Watching Buck interact with horses is a thing of beauty, his patience and subtle movements are like magic to the untrained eye.
What is more amazing is how the humans around him react, coming in with their own baggage and somehow unburdening their souls by the time they depart. Particularly heartbreaking is a sequence with a brain-damaged stud colt that attacks a rider, one of a dozen studs owned by a woman that Buck identifies as having personal worth issues. Even though it is determined the horse must be put down, and is dangerous to be around, Buck’s patience with the animal, literally waiting it out, is nothing short of amazing.
Yet Buck doesn’t reveal everything about himself, despite his willingness to talk about his own childhood with impunity. Questions remain around the fate of his brother, even with interviews from his loving foster mother, and how his own family deals with his long absences of up to 9 months on the road without them is never dealt with in any depth. Buck makes its point early and clearly, and while it may linger on that point for a long time, this is all in the spirit of the man who inspired this film.