Cindy Meehl’s ‘Buck’ Celebrates a Well-Lived Life

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Average: 5 (3 votes) Oscarman rating: 4.5/5.0
Rating: 4.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Every once in a while, a life is profoundly enriched by the example set by another. For several animal lovers throughout the country, Buck Brannaman has served as an inspiration. His philosophical approach toward working with horses holds countless truths that can be applied to all aspects of life, and they are woven into the very fabric of Cindy Meehl’s wonderful documentary, “Buck.”
There’s something rather refreshing about a documentary that doesn’t try to wow viewers with flashy visuals and structural audacity. Meehl had attended a few of the many annual clinics held by Brannaman throughout the country, and was driven purely by her passion for the material to make this film. Her lack of filmmaking experience ended up being an asset to the picture, since it’s devoid of the manipulative formula and manufactured sentiment that mars so many would-be feel-good docs.

Meehl’s film becomes an extension of Brannaman just as his horses become an extension of him. “Buck” is stripped-down and straightforward much like its human subject, whose clarity of mind was molded during a childhood fraught with hardship. His story deserved the observant eye and ear of a budding artist like Meehl, who trusted that it had the integrity and depth to be told as a feature lacking any semblance of excessive style. Her efforts paid off at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where the film received a rapturous response and went on to garner the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Yet this is the sort of accessible indie gem that could easily connect with a large mainstream audience in America. If marketed correctly, “Buck” has a solid shot at becoming one of the summer’s sleeper hits, and I frankly can’t think of any film more deserving of such success. Any time the film threatens to canonize its beloved subject, “Buck” is instantly grounded by Brannaman himself. He’s the sort of humble, homespun gentleman who repels canonization of any kind, and his warmth is truly infectious. I spent fifteen minutes interviewing him over the phone, and by the end of the conversation, I felt like I was spending time with an old friend. By the end of “Buck,” moviegoers might feel the same way.

Buck Brannaman communicates with horses in Cindy Meehl’s documentary, Buck.
Buck Brannaman communicates with horses in Cindy Meehl’s documentary, Buck.
Photo credit: IFC Films

There’s a striking moment early on where Brannaman slows the speed of his walking to demonstrate how he might move as an old man. His horse observes this change and adjusts its movement accordingly by following its owner at a slower speed. It becomes quickly apparent that Brannaman has somehow created a silent language with horses (both familiar and unknown) that allows him to calm and navigate their minds. As one of the nation’s most respected horse trainers and practitioners of the “natural horsemanship” method, Brannaman spends the majority of his time on the road, holding clinics at various locations where he’s gradually built a base of avid participants. His gentle tone when instructing the horses and their human counterparts is soothing but firm. The structure he imposes on them is mirrored by the structure provided by his own rigid schedule, which may function as a form of protection. His wife and teenage daughter are glimpsed in the film, and though their relationship with him appears to be without any strain, daughter Reata does admit that her father tends to be a micromanager when she joins him on tour during the summer months. Brannaman’s need for order in his life seems to have sprung directly from his troubled upbringing, when he and his brother were abused mercilessly at the hands of their own father.
Though Buck was trained as an expert Trick Roper from a very early age, his spirit didn’t really catch fire until he was under the loving care of foster parents Forrest and Betsy Shirley. It was this devoted couple who initially introduced him to the therapeutic nature of horses. In her few scenes, Betsy proves to be a natural-born scene-stealer, and ends up contributing many of the film’s most unforgettable lines, such as, “Blessed are the flexible for they will not get bent out of shape.” That line certainly applies to Brannaman, whose Zen-like presence puts even the wildest horses at ease. He treats them with the same care and grace that he wished his father could’ve mustered, avoiding the physical abuse and intimidation utilized by unfeeling trainers throughout history. Some of the film’s most astonishing footage observes Brannaman as he silently communicates with the horses, mentally guiding them through doors they were previously afraid to enter.

Buck opens June 24 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Buck opens June 24 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Photo credit: IFC Films

No wonder author Nicholas Evans used Brannaman as his primary inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in his 1995 novel, “The Horse Whisperer.” Robert Redford shares some heartfelt memories of his collaboration with Brannaman on the set of his 1998 film adaptation of Evans’ novel. Though Brannaman started out as an advisor on the production, he eventually became Redford’s body double and even saved a crucial scene by volunteering his own horse to hit the necessary mark and interact with actress Scarlett Johansson. While the Hollywood-trained equine actors were used to working with lenses, Brannaman’s animals benefited from being comfortable with people.
Though the film grows somewhat repetitive in its second act, Meehl saves her most compelling footage for the film’s final half hour. Suddenly, the film’s series of montages comes to a halt, as Brannaman finds himself faced with a horse so disturbed and vicious that it may be impossible to help. A lesser documentarian may have cut this footage out in order to portray Brannaman as a larger-than-life miracle worker. But Meehl’s focus is unwavering, allowing the audience to draw connections between the horse’s unsettling violence and its anguished owner who has overwhelmed her troubled life with animals she is entirely unequipped to aid. This section of the film provides viewers with the most unforgettable example of how a horse is, in essence, an amplified version of one’s own inner life. When Brannaman gives the tearful owner some difficult but vital advice, he speaks in his usual soothing yet firm tone. At a time when America’s divisive culture is anchored by shouting matches with the power to drown out all common sense, I suspect every person could benefit from emulating Brannaman’s serene, no-nonsense approach to dealing with conflict. “Buck” is both a call to more humane human-horse relations and a transcendent call to unity among all living things. It’s also one of the year’s best films.

‘Buck’ features Buck Brannaman. It was directed by Cindy Meehl. It opened June 24 at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

Anonymous's picture

Buck Review

Such an excellently written review. Obviously this documentary is well worth seeing. Sounds like a great character study of a person who been through an incredibly difficult childhood, but has found a way to use his experiences to help horses and people. Thanks for this impressive review of an equally impressive subject.

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