He’s an unassuming man with an unusual and valuable talent. He’s also a scarred victim of horrific childhood abuse that, miraculously, managed to survive. As a small boy, Dan “Buckshot” Brannaman was paraded out by a surly stagedoor father, taught the art of trick roping and resigned to a youth spent as spectacle. When he didn’t please the grizzled old man, he and his brother would end up bruised, battered, and bleeding. As long as his loving mother was alive, Buck could tolerate the beatings. But when she died suddenly, his father sank into a bottle, and the brutality was amplified.
It was a concerned gym teacher (who saw the nauseating welts all over the child’s back) and an angry sheriff that removed Buck from his home, setting him on a path to recovery…and a realization. With his love of horsemanship and the inspiration of some equally compassionate people, he wanted to work toward a better understanding between animal and trainer. Call it ‘compassionate obedience’ – or the more PC friendly moniker of “Horse Whisperer” – but Buck quickly discovered that he could apply the lessons he learned during his difficult upbringing to teach owners how to react to, and respect, their mounts.
As part of a fascinating documentary on his life, we get to meet Buck Brannaman and learn about his current crusade. Spending nearly ten months out of the year on the road, he travels across country holding clinics and offering demonstrations. Like a traveling E/R for out of control horses, Buck is capable of calming even the most savage steed in a matter of minutes. Only twice in his entire career has there ever been an animal he could not help. Toward the end of our time with this amazing man, we witness one of those rare cases. For most of the time, however, director Cindy Meehl acts as fan and fly on the wall. She celebrates Buck’s achievements while keeping the past in plain view.
This is not really a film about horse training. These kind of documentaries never are. It’s actually more a comment on human survival. With his laid back demeanor and open heart, you’d never guess Buck was a constant whipping post for his father. You don’t see a single lingering effect – emotionally or physically. He is a strong, centered individual with a loving wife and family. He is especially close to his foster mother, an equally astonishing woman who raised dozens of neglected boys in her modest home. Still alive, she occasionally travels with Buck, bringing into focus the fractured nature of his existence.
About the only element missing from the narrative is his brother, Bill, who is never mentioned beyond the references to the past. We don’t know if he’s dead, defeated, unable to cope, or simply eager to stay out of the limelight. Neither Buck nor Ms. Meehl are offering any explanation. Another issue barely touched on (and saved for the end) is the whole “lost cause” concept of raising horses. Buck makes it very clear that animals are a reflection of their owner, and when an uncontrollable and violent steed arrives with its sad and unsettled owner, you can tell our subject is about to attempt the near impossible. Yet within moments of the horse biting a handler, Buck has given in, resigned that the case is incurable.
It’s a harsh denouement, one we don’t expect from such a mighty Zen master. But in that moment, Buck the movie uncovers the real Buck, the man. Instead of the fawning afterglow of a wizard working his magic to the disbelief of a well paying audience, we see a realistic professional passing out necessary tough love. As he says often throughout the film, man should never harm an animal for his own gain. What he doesn’t say is that some should never contemplate making the commitment in the first place. During the aforementioned sequence, Buck dresses down the owner, asking her point blank “what she was thinking?” As she crumbles, clearly affected by the question, understanding turns to (tepid) anger.
It’s an unusual position to see Buck in, and one we could use a bit more of. After all, when you’ve got Robert Redford fawning over you like a true fan (he was a crucial, creative link for the superstar’s adaptation of Nicolas Evans’ novel The Horse Whisperer), a little balance is necessary. Similarly, Meehl skims over the various influences outside of Buck’s family. Ray Hunt, his primary mentor, seems relegated to an anecdote or two, and stock footage of his work passes by without the attention to detail shown elsewhere. We learn more about Buck’s personal habits on the road than we ever do about how he became such a horseman name.
As with most portraits, it’s possible to overlook the lapses and concentrate on what’s good. Meehl’s camera captures parts of America that literally seem lost in time. There are vast expanses and pristine vistas that suggest a whole other world waiting just outside the high tech drone of 2011. Similarly, Buck himself is no shell. He’s fully formed and realized, capable of holding the screen with his laconic likability. He may be addressing a topic that few in the audience have any direct connection to, but his lessons can be applied elsewhere. Indeed, Buck often argues that, without the abuse and rescue he faced as a boy, he wouldn’t be the patient and prescient man he is today.
Because Meehl allows Buck to speak for himself, because she tends to play a more passive role in the overall storytelling, this otherwise delightful documentary feels a tad incomplete. On the other hand, a stronger narrative focus may have filled in the blanks, but it would also cause the concept to lose much of its gentle geniality. For all he’s been through, Buck Brannaman is a true example of perseverance and grace. The intriguing movie of his life offers frequent flashes of both.