February 27, 2010 / Filmwell
James Gray’s latest wraps three distinct, remarkable characters around a haunting question. It may make you miserable while you watch, but it will stick with you like few love stories do.
August 1, 2011
Not knowing a lot about Buck before I walked into the theater, I sat down assuming I was about to witness the inspirational tale of a “horse whisperer.” The story of Buck Brannaman is one that lends itself to such Hollywood sensationalism, ripe for reimagining as a feel-good family flick. But this spin isn’t something I imagine Buck himself endorsing. A staid-but-pleasant stand-up guy, Buck isn’t here to make magic, and you’re not going to catch any symphonic swell when he mounts a horse. His job is to show people how they’re failing to communicate with their animals. While that may sound pragmatic enough, Buck finds a grandeur of its own in its reflections on growth, connection, and redemption. By rethinking the way we approach animal training, we are forced to confront the ways in which we, too, have been “trained”– and the choices we can still make in the wake of our conditioning.
Director Cindy Meehl and editor Toby Shimin make Buck essentially the cinematic incarnation of Brannaman himself. Spending 90 minutes in the theater with this documentary feels a whole lot like a day at the ranch, which is a novel experience indeed for the average art house moviegoer. The film can be lovely, humane, unassuming, and occasionally a bit dull– all traits of the man in question. Meehl effectively strikes a balance between the transcendent and the mundane to evoke the spirit of life in the country, and specifically life with horses. The animals are photographed beautifully: sweat shimmering on hides, muscles surging, dust kicked up amidst crisp sunlight and grasses. But most of the time we’re just following Brannaman, whether he’s dispensing revelatory advice to a crowd or logging hours in the truck between towns.
Buck Brannaman travels the country giving clinics about horse training. Though he gets some press as a “horse whisperer,” that’s not the way he would describe what he does. Buck’s goal for his students is to get them to communicate with their horses– and not in some pseudospiritual sense. He means that people should meet their horses on their own terms and make an effort to understand “why a horse does what he does.” His insights always seem at once obvious and revolutionary. He begins a trust-building exercise by pointing out the essential foreignness of horsemanship that we take for granted: “It’s like saying to a horse, ‘Don’t worry, I wanna crawl on top of you. Then I want to strap some hides of other dead animals on you.'” He goes on to explain that the way we climb on a horse’s back is the same way a lion might launch an attack; it doesn’t mean that we ought not to, but it does mean that it involves a great deal more trust than we are likely to consider.
When humans refuse to build this trust, they resort to other means to control their horses, means that invariably harm and constrain them beyond their natural limits. For many, to train a horse is to “break” a horse– an industry term that Brannaman finds unhelpful and repellant. To him, a horse is not a means to an end, but a partner in a dance. This could all sound quite hippy-dippy if it weren’t for his forthright, fatherly approach. He isn’t afraid to be strict with the animals, but his emphasis is on their growing understanding, with room for mistakes. Brannaman makes the connection between horse training and child rearing explicit on at least one occasion, and Buck ultimately makes this its theme.
In a way, Buck goes further toward anthropomorphizing the horse than any animated feature could. Anthropomorphism is not quite the right concept, but it’s related. Buck doesn’t project human characteristics onto horses: it synthesizes the experiences of humans and horses into a single thread. Buck illustrates this in its depiction of Brannaman’s abusive childhood home. His father– the person charged with raising him in the way he should go– had no patience for young Buck’s failures and met them with violence. So too goes the story of many, many horses, either battered into submission or turned savage by neglect. When Brannaman tells a horse, “I’m not here to hurt you,” he knows how very vital those words are, the breath of life.
An untrained horse and a child are much the same: headstrong, stumbling, and terribly vulnerable. To do irreparable damage to either is far too easy– a reality that Buck acknowledges, though does not fully explore. Instead, the film chooses to focus on the combination of strength and sensitivity that it takes to raise a living thing the right way; this combination is Brannaman’s particular genius. He can look at a horse and know the exact approach it needs from its owner, which involves a good deal of human psychological acumen. “Your horse is a mirror,” he says, “and sometimes you’re not gonna like what you see.” Whether it’s our animals or our children, it is clear that the beings we raise reveal our own shortcomings– and triumphs. If we can learn to be steadfast and graceful to a creature in our care, we can go a long way toward understanding the forces that continue to shape us, unfinished as we are.
Buck is not a guru or philosopher; his gently funny, matter-of-fact manner seems a relic of a time gone by. Buck is a film close to the spirit of the man– authentic, empathetic, polite. It doesn’t scale any intellectual or emotional heights, and that’s just the way Brannaman would like it, I suspect. For my part, I wish we could have seen a bit deeper into the minds of these people, especially the horse owners who come to Buck for help. Brannaman seems to have an incredible eye for human-horse relationships, but we only get the barest glimpse of what he sees.
We do, however, get a taste of how he feels. Buck Brannaman lives for what he calls, incidentally, “the feel”– the ability to communicate with a horse based on the smallest movements, intuition, energy. “If you got a taste of that, you couldn’t get enough. You’d rather do that than eat. You may spend your whole life chasin’ that… but it’s a good thing to chase.” Something magical happens when horse and master work in harmony; there’s no push and shove, no winner, just a dance. Wherever I find myself–whether master or horse– I wouldn’t mind spending my life chasing that kind of effortless unity.