|A scene from Buck.|
By John Esther
Thanks to some film festival publicity targeted toward the lowest common denominator for a documentary (at SXSW as well as Sundance), I was under the impression director Cindy Meehl's documentary about Buck Brannaman, a man who has a superior way with horses, was going to be a mammal apple love fest a la director Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer or bubble gum patriarchal psychology vis-à-vis Dog Whisperer.
Fortunately, Buck is a lot more sophisticated, engaging and legitimate than the 1998 film supposedly inspired by Brannaman (he also served as an advisor) or the National Geographic show starring Cesar Millan.
Raised by his father after his mother's death, Brannaman and his brother were continually abused by their sole parent until a school coach intervened. Mercifully the boys were placed in a loving and very large foster home with parents he did not fear (for long).
Although a roping phenomenon as a child, Brannaman soon gravitated toward the care and compassion of horses. Refusing to pass on the violence he endured from his father and rebelling against the traditionally violent methods of "breaking" horses, Brannaman forged a reputation as a man of reason of the people and for the horses.
Buck follows Brannaman on the road, where he spends nine months of the year teaching four-day seminars in "colt starting," translating his learned empathy for potential victims into human endeavor. A straight shooter, Brannaman's successful results with horses, along with what Redford in the documentary calls "authenticity," have a great affect on the horses and their owners. Horses settle down. Owners throw down their weapons. There is harmony amongst these mammals.
Although there are a few quibbles to be raised, Buck's greatest omission is the failure to address Brannaman and company's attitude toward cows and bulls, which are often treated as objects of sport (e.g. roping training and competitions). And I could not find any source claiming Brannaman is a vegetarian. What makes horses better than other animals? It seems it is like what Comrade Napoleon and company say in George Orwell's novel, Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
A documentary that should do modestly well in theaters with a long shelve life for home-viewing afterward -- perhaps even in areas of the country where documentaries rarely do well -- despite its shortcomings, Buck offers something better than the hype.