Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl's engaging documentary profile "Buck," has a warm presence and knows how to tame horses better than anyone else. That's the simplest encapsulation of the movie's thesis, although the subtext runs much deeper than that. Beaten by his demanding father as a child and eventually sent to a foster home, Brannaman turned to horses for catharsis and found something even better: The ability to save innocent beings from never-ending turmoil. He doesn't simply like the animals; he relates to them.
Meehl succeeds at displaying this bond in a parade of scenes from Brannaman's famous training sessions by emphasizing his even-headed approach. A far cry from the stereotype of long-haired hippies communing with their fellow species through nature, Brannaman's patient manner as he navigates a horse's changing moods gives the impression of a therapist. His style generates an intuitive dialogue with horses through subtle motions and a calm mode of address. By cowboy standards, he's a genuine softie.
"Buck" is composed of interviews with Brannaman along with his family and friends, as he engages in his annual nine-month trip around the country helping horse owners tame their feisty pets. A devotee of the Natural Horsemanship movement, Brannaman transfixes his audience with matter-of-fact lectures about the two-way conversation that must take place between horse and rider. As he speaks, his actions synch up with his assertions: A small tug or tap brings a horse to his attention moments after a violent outburst.
Brannaman's uncanny ability to temper a horse's anger, of course, calls to mind the trainer's dramatic childhood. If he still suffers from the psychological wounds inflicted by his father, then his training sessions provide an effective coping mechanism. In a broader sense, Brannaman's affable demeanor presents an idealistic approach to all communication, extending the appeal of "Buck" from animal gimmickry to a treatise on the necessity for prudent communication.
Brannaman's abilities generate universal curiosity. Without coming across as wild-eyed sooth-sayer or anthropomorphic simpleton, Brannaman provides a healthy contrast to grotesque stereotypes. One of the inspirations for the fictional character in the Nicholas Evans novel "The Horse Whisperer," Brannaman was eventually hired by Robert Redford as the key consultant for the big screen adaptation. In "Buck," the actor recalls being impressed with Brannaman's honest, tranquil presence. Redford's surprise points to the revisionist nature of Brannaman's work - it overturns the cowboy stereotype, which in a sense makes "Buck" into a kind of revisionist western doused in sentimentalism. Brannaman doesn't invite conflict, but he sure knows how to control it.
Although "Buck" generally moves along as a loose portrait, it does reach a climax of sorts. While attempting to tame an ill-treated stallion, Brannaman suddenly jumps into hero mode when the creature attacks its clueless owner. The horse whisperer retains supreme focus as he reigns in the ferociously confused animal, and his childhood suffering registers on his face. "Horses are my life," he says at one point, but they're also very clearly his salvation.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up by Sundance Selects after a successful premiere at Sundance, "Buck" has enjoyed a healthy festival run and will likely play to strong numbers on VOD while enjoying solid reception in limited release from horse enthusiasts and curious amateurs alike. IFC Films opens the film in New York and L.A. beginning Friday, June 17 followed by other cities around the country.
criticWIRE grade: B+