“If you find a way to fix this thing right here, it’ll make you better. It’ll make you better in areas you didn’t think were related to horses.” Buck Brannaman’s students listen carefully when he speaks. They stand alongside their horses, hoping they’ll hear in his instructions a solution, whether their animal is fearful or fierce, stubborn or prickly. But clinics with Buck might end up teaching them less about their horses than themselves. “A lot of times,” he says, “Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.”
These horses and people come from all over the U.S. or, more precisely, Buck travels all over, holding clinics nine months out of the year. This work—some people call him an “inspirational speaker”—keeps him away from home, the wife Mary and three daughters. As he settles down to a plate of French fries in an empty restaurant, he notes that being alone has costs “You wanna be home and you think of what it would be like to just be walking barefoot across the living room and going to bed. There’s no way that’s ever going to be anything than what it is.”
It’s not clear whether he’s resigned to his own loneliness or philosophical about the state of all men. What is clear is that he loves what he does, that spending time with horses on the road provides a welcome rhythm and routine. This emerges early in Buck, winner of the Audience Award at Sundance and Full Frame, and screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 31 May, followed by a Q&A with director Cindy Meehl, then opening in selected theaters on 17 June.
It’s also clear in the film that he’s developed a persona (he drinks his coffee black, he says, “I’m sure that comes as a big surprise) and a devoted following. Most of the interviewees here are clients and, as Betty Staley describes herself, “converts.” They believe in him, they’ve seen him work miracles with damaged horses. And they admire his story, that is, a severely abusive father who had him and his older brother Smokie, doing rope tricks for money by the time Buck was six.
This story unfolds slowly during the documentary, told partly by friends (ranch owner Gary Myers tears up when he tells it) and partly by Robert Redford, who used Buck as one of the models for The Horse Whisperer (“I knew that Buck was really a special guy,” he says, “To come through that abuse and rather than repeating it, he said, ‘I’m not gonna have that in my life’”). Add to this that Buck’s mother died when he was young (“I knew my life was over as I knew it,” he remembers, “I no longer had my protector”) and that a coach rescued him after spotting whip marks on the boy’s back—and Buck’s story is straight-up remarkable. As Staley puts it, “Horses get discouraged by riders who shut the doors. And Buck’s really good at opening doors.”
Still, the film is not only a celebration of Buck’s achievements or chronicle of his current rescue projects. And it’s not only a portrait of a man and horses—though the many shots of Buck on or alongside horses, in green fields or dusty corrals, their movements in harmony and or in tension, are lovely. Beyond such images, which might be expected in a movie about a horse trainer, the film also considers how Buck engages with people. And it’s in such moments, more familiar, that the film is most compelling.
Buck makes no bones about his own residual anger, the difficulty he has in remembering his father. “I wouldn’t attribute any of my positive virtues to my dad whatsoever,” he says, as the film shows Buck and Smokie as adorable little cowboys, blindfolded and twirling lariats on TV. “I know you’re not supposed to hate anybody, but the hurt that he caused me, I never really got over it. So, I live in the moment.” That moment sometimes includes his daughter Reata and her friend Nevada Watt, who ride along with Buck in the summer, when they’re not in school. Reata observes, “Traveling with dad, it can get pretty stressful sometimes, because he can be the travel Nazi.” You know, she explains, completing thoughts you’ve already started while watching him adhere to his routine, “He has his own little way of doing things that we can mess up sometimes.”
That’s not to say Buck isn’t charming and patient on screen: he jokes that Reata is sometimes too much “like” him, according to his wife (and he’s damn proud that she already “out-ropes most men,” and will soon be better than he is). And, when the camera catches him cleaning his trailer with a Dustbuster, he jokes again about learning from Oprah that “the greatest aphrodisiac for a man is to have a vacuum and to actually run it in the presence of his wife.”
As awkward as Buck may feel in front of the camera (and he recalls being painfully shy, almost unable to speak when he first started doing clinics), the film makes use of his absence during its most startling sequence, when Julie is unable to salvage her horse—or, as Buck sees it, herself. The drama begins while Buck is off-screen, and a friend, Dan, works with the horse, Kelly. Fractious, frightened, and difficult at every step, Kelly actually attacks Dan, teeth gnashing. Bloodied and a little stunned, Dan steps back, and the assembled crowd awaits Buck’s return to the scene, as if awaiting a savior. The film cuts to Buck’s instruction to Julie, that her own instability is bringing on Kelly’s and likely her other horses’ too. “Maybe there’s something for you to learn about you,” he says, gently but also, in the moment, brutally. Julie looks stricken. “That horse is a mirror,” he says, his words clipped. “All your horses are a mirror to your soul and sometimes you might not like what you see.”
The scene—alarming and violent—is over in just a couple of minutes, but the effect lingers. If horses, like Buck, live in the moment, and so, can respond to him, people bring their baggage—resentment and frustration, hope and desperation. Asked by an uncomprehending student why he doesn’t punish Kelly, Buck offers yet another lesson: “To have contempt for the horse would never even occur to me.” People have to be responsible, the film shows. Buck included.