'Buck': A Horse Whisperer Wrangles His Dark Past

Jun 17, 2011

Our therapeutic culture is lousy with stories of people struggling to spin childhood traumas into something positive, something that leaves the world a better place than the one that damaged them; but I've never seen a film in which the link between a trauma and its transmutation is as vivid as in Buck.

Cindy Meehl's shambling yet uncannily beautiful documentary tells the story of Buck Brannaman, a rangy, bow-legged cowboy who travels the country 40 weeks out of every year hosting four-day horse clinics. Brannaman was an advisor on the film of The Horse Whisperer and the moniker is often attached to him, but I'd call him the Horse "Empath." It's as if he sees and hears himself through the animals' eyes and ears, feeling their childlike skittishness and fear.

That empathy, it turns out, has roots in his past as the child of an abusive alcoholic who drilled him and his brother in the showbiz art of rope tricks — and also, after their mother died, pulled them out of bed and forced them to listen to his drunken ravings, and beat them mercilessly for inexplicable infractions. Then a coach saw Buck's ravaged back, the sheriff stepped in, and he and his brother went to live with a couple named the Shirleys, whose mode with the terrified child was firm but gentle. One of the first things his foster father taught him was how to shoe horses.

It's well and good to hear Buck and others tell his story, but the film wouldn't come to much if you didn't feel the connection between his present and past in every frame. Heartbreaking historical footage of horses being whipped and "broken" gives way to Buck and the thin little flags he flutters hypnotically in front of them, pausing between motions for the animals to settle themselves.

Other than The Black Stallion, which captured the magic of a horse in motion, horse movies like Seabiscuit and Secretariat tend to be choppy, edited around the animals, so that their natural rhythms are lost. But Meehl, in her directing debut, is attuned to the rhythms of Buck, who's attuned to the horses. "Everything's a dance," he explains — and suddenly he and the animal have launched into a sideways canter so graceful, so unified, that Fred Astaire would stop and salute.

This portrait of Buck hints at darker sides to its subject. He's a loving but absent father — although one of his daughters helps out in his clinics and wields a pretty fair lasso. And there is one, climactic episode that breaks Buck's easy stride: an encounter with a violent, brain-damaged-at-birth horse that has been improperly raised and is now, Buck says, "a predator." Clearly struggling to control his voice, he tells the owner that the state of the horse tells him quite a bit about her. "The horse didn't fail us," says Buck, with disgust. "We failed him." He could be talking about the person he might have become — or any child brought into a scary world of grown-ups who don't look, listen, or feel.

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