This is a documentary about the “real Horse Whisperer,” Buck Brannaman, the man who inspired—or at least informed—both the Nick Evans novel The Horse Whisperer and Robert Redford’s 1998 film version of the book. I never read the book, but I am familiar with Redford’s film—and all in all, I think Buck is the stronger work. This sursprises me because I like Redford’s film, am not particularly interested in horses, and tend to be resistant to documentaries that are not on subjects that normally interest me. It is perhaps a measure of the success of a documentary to be able to interest you in a subject that you’d not normally gravitate toward.
I have no doubt whatever that Buck will hold greater interest for viewers who are into horses. In fact, for them, without question I’d call the film a must-see. Both the film and its subject obviously love horses and respect them—and it comes across in every frame. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the film’s penultimate and longest stretch where Brannaman comes up against a situation with a horse where it becomes obvious early on that this will not end well. It’s an essential part of the film, owing to this very fact, but what ultimately comes from this sequence is Brannaman’s deep sense of the dignity of the animal—something he returns in kind.
On the one hand, Buck is a fairly straightforward documentary. It consists of Brannaman working at his craft (which doesn’t actually involve whispering) and talking about horses and his life, interspersed with the obligatory talking heads of people who are or have been involved with him. Yes, even Robert Redford gets into the act during a very strong scene where he recalls working with Brannaman—then the lead equine consultant on The Horse Whisperer—and combined with footage from the film. It flows so nicely that you scarcely realize just how carefully the footage has been hooked together for maximum effect.
The thing, however, that makes Buck more than just a documentary on Brannaman and horses is the deeply felt humanity of the film—and of the man himself. This is also the story of a child who—along with his brother—was taught trick-roping by an abusive father, who then thrust the boys into show business. It’s the story of a kid whose only real memory of shooting a commercial for Kellogg’s Sugar Pops is of his father beating the daylights out of the boys for not getting the commercial right on the first take. It’s the story of boys finally taken away from that father and placed in a loving foster home. At least, it sort of is, since one of the film’s peculiar omissions is any reference to Buck’s brother after their move. Indeed, he’s scarcely referred to prior to the move—and there’s a strangely incomplete quality to the way this is handled.
That said, the film makes it clear that this childhood completely informs Brannaman’s present. It is the grounding for his entire approach to horse training—the idea of using understanding and compassion rather than brute force in training. It’s also clear that this approach spills over into its subject’s life in general. What you’re left with after 88 minutes is the sense that you’ve met a remarkably good man who it’s a pleasure to know, even from the distance of the movie screen. Some have said the he—and the film—make you want to be a better person. I won’t go that far, but neither would I argue against their case. Rated PG for thematic elements, mild language and an injury.