Buck, the story of real horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, comes at you with the understated eloquence of the man himself — a soft-spoken cowboy philosopher changing lives as he gentles horses, an aw-shucks hero who never claims to be more than an ordinary man. What a relief in times saturated with news of the worst of humanity to see something of the best.
In her first documentary, which won the coveted audience award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, director Cindy Meehl mirrors that sensibility. The film is deeply moving yet never maudlin in telling this hard-knocks-but-hope-infused story.
It would have been tempting, given the broad strokes of Buck's life: A childhood marked by early stardom — he and his older brother were young trick-roping sensations — and vicious beatings at the hand of his father, the early death of his mother, the foster family that rescued him and the safety and solace he found in horses. Instead, Meehl allows the facts, simply told, to carry the weight.
The idea for the film came after Meehl attended one of Buck's horse clinics, which keeps him on the road most of the year. The fashion designer shelved her couture work for filmmaking, pushed, she says in production notes, by a story she felt compelled to tell.
The images, beautiful and evocative, are culled from more than 300 hours of footage, much of it shot over two years by cinematographers Guy Mossman (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) and Luke Geissbuhler (Borat). The filmmaker and editor Toby Shimin rely on a mix of old film clips, current interviews and lots of day-in-the life shots to build a remarkably candid and intimate look at Buck and his world.
The film opens with a shot of horses running free, manes flying in the wind, dust kicking up in their wake. It underscores the beauty and power of the animal — and reminds us that the very act of owning and riding a horse takes away that freedom.
Then the camera introduces Buck without a word. Long before you see his face, you get a measure of the man — solitary; a steady stride that is confident without being cocky; the cowboy hat, the chaps, the boots and the rest worn for utility, not style.
Most of the voices in the documentary, other than Buck's, are the people whose lives he has touched. They are an eclectic mix — some competing and showing Thoroughbreds, others raising and refining cattle horses, some riding for pleasure, nearly all coming into his workshops thinking there is little he can teach them. And then he does.
He's a natural in the training ring, as much raconteur as resource. As he walks his classes through what a rider is asking of the horse — from the halter on his head to the stranger climbing on his back — you come to understand the core of his philosophy, that horses are a mirror of the person riding them. He suggests that anyone can learn his techniques, but just watching him work with a horse, it's hard not to think there is a mystical connection that no workshop can pass along.