Short Takes: Buck
By Chris Norris
(Cindy Meehl, U.S., 2011)
There’s a laconic big-sky mysticism in the American West of recent films that bears a distinct whiff of the air downwind of a stall. Buck Brannaman patiently sweeps such manure aside throughout Cindy Meehl’s debut doc Buck, which follows the four-day horse clinics Brannaman conducts nine months a year. “A lot of people want it all to be fuzzy and warm and cosmic,” he tells one group. “But it’s no different with a horse than with a kid.”
This crucial line begins the tale of how Brannaman became a master of natural horsemanship. “When something’s scared for their life—I understand,” he says, while TV clips show the professional trick-roper whose father became a monster after his wife’s death, leaving horsewhip marks on Buck’s back that sent him and his brother off to foster care.
Brannaman became the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer, perfecting a style of horsemanship that often looks like a magic act. Wisely, Meehl roots this redemption tale in carefully observed demonstrations at his clinics, even as the gorgeously shot landscape reminds us why stories like this are Hollywood’s very lifeblood. Robert Redford relays a telling moment from The Horse Whisperer when the Hollywood-trained horse kept failing to nuzzle Scarlett Johansson. On-set consultant Brannaman suggested they try his horse instead. “‘Oh, you don’t understand, Buck,’” recalls Brannaman. “‘He doesn’t know how to work on a mark, he’s not an actor.’ I said, ‘I know. He’s a horse.’” Needless to say, the horse knocked it out like a pro.