The heft of having Robert Redford in your documentary can’t have hurt the filmmakers behind “Buck,” a somewhat superficial look at the famed horse trainer who coached Redford during the making of “The Horse Whisperer.” And where that star power really helped was in getting the film into Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.
Taken on its own merits, this profile of “Buck” Brannaman is a pleasant and touching but somewhat superficial insight to the man and his methods. We see Brannaman run his seminars where troubled horse owners, ranchers and horsemen gather to watch and learn how to humanely train and manage a problem horse.
But “I’m helping horses with people problems,” is how Buck puts it. Brannaman gives his views of horse psychology, why they might not like having a human being on their back. He compares the ways lions jump horses to the way humans mount them, and points to the instinct that the horse is acting out of. Brannaman is kind, soft-spoken, and he gets results.
“Why let an animal live in fear?” he lectures.
Filmmaker Cindy Meehl follows Buck across country, Walktertown N.C. to Bend, Oregon — as Buck takes his methods to the masses of horse owners. She also shows us the rough childhood Buck endured (a champion at rope tricks, raised by a perfectionist abusive father), a background he says gave him empathy for working with horses as an adult.
But much of the movie — too much of it — is just Buck in the corral, riding, working with ropes and flags, conditioning a horse to behave. He uses a wireless microphone and his workshop guests watch in awe, but then learn and join him in the ring to try out what he’s teaching. Not that we can pick up on the totality of his technique.
He cracks jokes. “I was watching Oprah…I don’t know if I should admit to that.” And a good day? “I didn’t make anybody cry.” Brannaman takes his horse expertise and applies it to people, ruthlessly, Dr. Phil style. It’s tough love when he tells a rancher it’s the problems in her life that are making the animals neurotic. And when he finds that one horse he can’t train, it’s all about what wasn’t done by others earlier to save him. The film’s most poignant moments come from his efforts trying to save a dangerous horse.
Redford pops up, from time to time, to marvel at this “authentic, the real deal” cowboy.
Which he is. “God had him in mind when he invented cowboys.”
Brannaman isn’t a “horse whisperer.” He comes off as a soft-spoken soul who uses gentleness and patience to get results that others can only envy. But the movie about him concentrates more on results. It makes it look so easy that it keeps his secrets. If he’s not whispering, how DOES he do it?
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, mild language and an injury.
Cast: Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford
Credits: Directed by Cindy Meehl, produced by Julie Goldman. A Sundance Selects release. Running time: 1:29