Buck is the spellbinding documentary showcasing the talents
of Buck Brannaman, a real-life horse whisperer, who begins by telling us that
he travels the country helping horses who have people problems. But you don’t have to be a horse person to appreciate
the Will Rogers-like homespun humor and wisdom of this plain spoken philosopher
sporting boots and a Stetson.
The film winds in and out featuring personal interviews with
students, friends and family, interspersed with clips of his hands-on horse
training. This documentary shows us that
sometimes a thing of genius is rooted in simplicity itself. The genius of Buck is that he has total
empathy with the horses and riders he trains.
But he warns us that “our horses mirror who we are, and sometimes we
don’t like what we see.” Buck earned his
empathic personality the hard way, constantly in terror of his abusive
alcoholic father, who regularly beat him and his brother Smokey. They were trained by their dad to be the
youngest trick ropers in the business and were even featured in a TV commercial
for Sugar Pops. (Do they even make Sugar
Pops anymore?) But no performance was
ever good enough to satisfy the perfectionist, and the boys bore the bruises to
prove it. On the cover of the DVD we learn Buck’s philosophy that “There is no
wisdom worth having that isn’t hard won.”
So Buck totally
understands behavior that is rooted in fear, and comprehends completely that
when the horse misbehaves he is only trying to protect himself. His firm, but gentle approach works equally
well with the four-legged variety, and the two-legged kind who smell like a
McDonald’s hamburger. Imagine how difficult it is for an herbivore, like the
horse, to be mounted by a carnivore, and you begin to appreciate where some of
the primal issues between horses and riders begin.
Buck worked with Robert Redford in the film The Horse
Whisperer and even doubled as Redford’s stuntman in some of the scenes. In one particularly emotional scene, Pilgrim,
the injured horse, is supposed to stomp and snort in fear, cowering in the back
of his stall, but then in a total reversal of emotion, turn and put his head in
the arms of his young owner. Redford
worked with a “trick” horse and his trainer for over a day, but failed to
capture the action he desired. Time is
money in the movie business, so Buck offered his own horse to play Pilgrim, and
the desired scene was in the can in twenty minutes. Makes a believer out of me.
It’s rare that a documentary can appeal to so many,
especially given such specific subject matter, but Buck has become a mass
market phenomenon that transcends time and place thanks to the wit and wisdom
of Mr. Brannaman. If you care to mount
up, this documentary will take you for a great ride.
Note: Buck won the 2011 Sundance Audience Award.