A standard meme in modern Western movies is that the Old West – and, specifically, the cowboy – is dying. In truth it’s already dead, wiped out by the giant agribusiness companies that seemingly control every tractor and head of cattle between Chicago and Salt Lake City. But people still want to own horses and ride them, and dressage is still an Olympic sport, so there are still amateurs who want to be around these powerful animals that could literally kill them. You need trained professionals to keep those deaths from happening, and that’s where the subject of the 2011 documentary Buck comes in.
Daniel “Buck” Brannaman is known as “the real-life horse whisperer,” in part because he was the inspiration of the lead character in the novel The Horse Whisperer, in part because he worked as a consultant on the 1998 Robert Redford film of the same name, and in part because horse whispering is a fairly accurate description of what Buck does for a living. For three-quarters of the year he travels the country teaching people how to tame wild horses through caring discipline, which is a sharp turn away from the violent horse-breaking of the Old West.
Director Cindy Meehl cuts between modern-day examples of Buck teaching his ways to postal workers and lawyers, and Buck’s close friends and family explaining the horrific childhood that he had. Buck’s father was an accomplished performance cowboy who specialized in rope-trick artistry, and taught those tricks to Buck and his brother. However, he also abused his sons horribly, beating them repeatedly if their performance slipped, to the point that the boys had to be taken into foster care after their mother’s death.
Buck is very direct about comparing Buck’s childhood with the methods he uses to tame horses now. No one actually comes out and says, “the ways that cowboys used to break horses are just like how he used to treat those boys,” but that’s just about the only subtlety employed. Normally I would be frustrated with that level of directness, but it works here because Buck is exactly that direct as a person. He’s almost a central-casting cowboy, as much as the Jack Palance character in City Slickers; he doesn’t deal in snark or irony.
One of the especially fascinating scenes is when Buck performs a number of rope tricks after dinner for the guests of one of his teaching seminars. The virtuosity is impressive, but it’s impossible not to think that the skill was honed through years of horrible abuse, the stories of which we’ve already seen reduce stoic cowboys to tears. Buck tells the camera that he hates his biological father and shed no tears for him at his death, and I’m sure that’s true, but a major theme in this film is that the horse is a mirror of the person who raised it, and that scene proves that it’s true to some degree for children as well.
If you see this film with anyone under the age of 35, there are sure to be snickers at first, when Buck talks about “rubbing the horse all over” and “showing how much you love him.” However the direct honesty of Buck as a person will quickly whisk that attitude away. Horses are immune to our jokes, of course, and the movie spares no detail in showing how he has devoted his life to understanding them.
In a way, Buck suffers by how good its subject is at what he does. The film is a little too slick, and Buck makes it look a little too easy for most of the movie’s 90-minute running time. Buck is so skilled at making horses obey that it seems like a gimmick, and I could easily see someone steeped in modern “reality” television thinking that this movie was staged. The movie does not present any counter-opinions from horse trainers who think that Buck’s method is faulty; of course, that could be because Buck is too good to question, but it still enhances that too-slick feeling.
Just when Buck might start to flounder under the weight of that issue, it delivers a fantastic sequence in which Buck is asked to take on a serious problem even for him: a young, brain-damaged colt who has been improperly raised in an all-stud environment. The action is as real as it gets, as the horse lacerates the skull of one of its owners and charges repeatedly at bystanders on the fence. Without spoiling the result, it’s clear that the animal is an enormous challenge, but the really amazing scene is when Buck uses the horse’s mistreatment to browbeat its owner. Her behavior has endangered the animal’s life and the safety of any person who ends up in the horse’s presence, and Buck reduces her to tears because of it.
This is exactly why Buck exists, why he can make this living even in an era when the cowboy is dying out: because horses can never be props or toys. Another sequence later in the film points out that when a dressage horse herds cattle, or when a cattle horse does dressage, they become better at both skills. The meaning is clear: horses must be treated as complete, living beings with purposes and desires. To do otherwise is abuse, of which Buck has a unique understanding. Sometimes Buck is a little too cheerleader-y for its subject, but in the end it delivers that unique understanding in a powerful and effective way.
Reviewed by Mark Young