In Buck, the real Horse Whisperer recovers from an abusive childhood as he trains horses and their owners. Cindy Meehl directs in her feature debut.
Where’s the warmth?
This movie never captures a warm connection between Buck Brannaman and the horses he trains. Where is the magic? Still Buck won the Audience Award at Sundance 2011.
Buck appears at event after event. He rides a jittery horse. The horse quiets and trots obediently. Owners comment on the miraculous transformations. They praise Buck’s special gift.
What you don’t learn: Who are these horses? What are their stories? How does Buck calm them? What happens after they return home?
Training horse owners
Brannaman schools horse owners, advising them how to approach and treat the animals with respect. “There’s a difference between firm and hard,” he notes. His approach is “90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”
As a young man, Buck attended a clinic given by Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. The two were promoting a gentle approach called “natural horsemanship.” Buck had found his calling.
Focusing on Brannaman and paying scant attention to horses is a curious misstep. The creatures of great dignity, power and freedom are given cursory treatment.
For example, when Buck and his daughter compete in a lasso competition, their horses perform in perfectly controlled fashion. It’s an odd, empty moment. The horses appear numb and practiced.
Had Meehl highlighted and developed several encounters between Buck and these animals, this film would truly satisfy. Movies like Born to be Wild and Water for Elephants let you feel that heartfelt tie.
Ill horse featured
Only at the end of Buck is one horse featured. Brain-damaged at birth and raised incorrectly, he becomes violent. The horse maims a rider on screen. He has become “a predator,” Buck warns. Finally the owner decides to put him down.
Father abuses brothers
Buck’s painful early years are slowly revealed. At age three, Buckshot (originally named Dan) began performing rope tricks with his older brother Smokie (Bill) under the management of their father Ace.
The youngest stars on the circuit, the boys often performed blindfolded. They became famous, appearing in a Sugar Pops commercial.
The two were driven hard and often whipped by their alcoholic dad. Their mother had passed away.
One day a coach noticed the bruising. The boys were removed from their home and adopted by a loving couple, the Shirleys. Brannaman still visits with his adoptive mother to this day.
Consultant on The Horse Whisperer
Buck Brannaman consulted on Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998). Nicholas Evans’ 1995 novel of the same name is based on the sensitive, gifted horse trainer.
An excerpt from Redford’s film is shown. Buck’s guidance was instrumental in helping to calm a jittery horse for an important scene.
Redford was impressed with the horse trainer’s politeness and humanity when they first met. Interviewed here, Redford calls Buck “no nonsense” and “authentic.”
Grueling work schedule
Buck travels 40 weeks out of each year to give four-day horse clinics. He misses his wife and daughter, he says. Meanwhile he restores calmness and serenity to the horses. Buck is known for his keen insights into the animals.
Buck tells the story of a quiet, gentle man, but doesn’t reveal very much. Buck’s brother never appears in the film. His absence is not explained. (3 out of 5 stars)
If you like Buck, you might enjoy: Secretariat.
Buck 2011 / PG / 1 hour, 28 min
Cast Overview: Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford
Director: Cindy Meehl
Genre: Documentary, Animals