Few of us harbor much, if any, regard for Robert Redford’s wearying The Horse Whisperer (1998),* but, it turns out, that advisor Buck Brannaman, the horse trainer who may even have inspired Nicholas Evans’s novel, is an intriguing chap about whom first-time filmmaker Cindy Meehl, a horse-owner herself, has sensitively crafted Buck, a no-nonsense, absorbing, humane and deeply moving documentary.
An interviewee describes Brannaman as a cowboy as God intended cowboys to be. Taciturn, gentle and accomplished, he brings life experience and expertise to his 4-day outdoor training clinics forty weeks a year, where he—as he humorously puts it—addresses the “people problems” that horses have. His approach reflects his own patience and gentleness, and his respect for the feelings of horses, which he tries to “feel out” empathetically. Intermittently, Brannaman compares horse training to the correct, compassionate way of raising a child; Reatta, his and wife Mary’s teenaged daughter, already something of a junior rodeo celebrity, testifies by her warm, confident manner to her father and mother’s parenting. Monstrously abused by his own embittered, alcoholic father, after his mother’s death schoolboy Brannaman, his back and buttocks covered with welts, was removed from home and placed in foster care. He himself wondered how he would turn out; he feels he made the choice that has led to his positive path in life. His foster mother, who has remained a substantial figure in his life, also helped. Her shrewd motto: “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
The apotheosis of Brannaman’s comparison of children and horses arrives toward the end, bringing to fruition the film’s rewarding unity. To one of his clinics a woman has brought her dangerously antisocial colt. Sleuth and psychologist Brannaman embarks on an analysis of the situation that takes one’s breath away—as does his patient success at getting the belligerent animal into its trailer without violence or coercion. This is no sentimental, upbeat moment, for Meehl and Brannaman make plain that the horse is damaged beyond repair. A flurry of exquisite dissolves achieves an overwhelming basis for comparison: Brannaman’s own horse.
Buck is an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s sentimental, worthless War Horse (2011), which drains the life out of its equine protagonist by the assignment of a spurious, hifalutin “nobility.”
* Redford, who appears in Meehl’s film as an interviewee certifying Brannaman’s authenticity, exposes himself as a real asshole.
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