Buck Brannaman partly inspired both the novel and film The Horse Whisperer, but his own life story offers far more narrative conflict and human insight than that soggy melodrama ever could. Cindy Meehl's documentary portrait of this remarkable real-life cowboy, natural horseman and human-animal relationship guru manages a deceptively effective tonal juggling act.
Much of the film follows Brannaman as he travels the country, and Meehl gives us lengthy, mesmerizing observational scenes of him riding and working with horses and demonstrating his Zen-like themes of patience and understanding. But she also delves into this gentle man and his brother's harrowing childhood as trick-rope stars and their brutal treatment at the hands of a demanding and abusive father. (There are also plenty of interviews, including with the star of The Horse Whisperer himself, Robert Redford.)
There's a haunted quality to Brannaman: He was saved by child services and a loving foster home, but even as a soft-spoken adult he still seems to carry the psychic scars of his past. Understandably, for all his focus on horses, he also often counsels the humans to settle the conflicts in their lives, lest their neuroses extend to their animals.
This could all get very Oprah very fast, of course. But Meehl clearly understands that the authenticity of Brannaman's work is best proven not by talking head testaments (though we do get those) but by the depiction of the work itself. The lovingly shot scenes of his work with horses are truly magical — we watch defensive, tense animals give in and attain dancerlike grace through the healing power of this calm and compassionate teacher, who seems more at home among them than he does among people.
Indeed, watching Buck, it's hard not to think of it as an entry in the revisionist Western genre, in the way it chooses to see its cowboy protagonist as a vessel of grace rather than of bitterness and pain. In that sense, this beautiful and uniquely American film mirrors its fascinating subject: It's an unassuming work that often says more through its silences than through endless amounts of chatter.
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