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Saddle Freud

by John Rodat on July 14, 2011

Directed by Cindy Meehl

The subject of Cindy Meehl’s documentary Buck comes across like the mash-up protagonist you’d get if you crossed leads out of Sam Shepard and Tom Robbins. Buck Brannaman is a cowboy: a trick-roping, colt-breaking, black-coffee-drinking man’s man with a dark past of fear and violence. But he’s also a philosopher: a humanist, a humorist, a “horse whisperer” and a family man with a quietly resolute focus on the present and on gentleness.

Viewers who feel, initially, that they are being taken for a ride, may be forgiven. As expert a witness on the subject of phony cowboys as famed actor Robert Redford (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Catolog, uh, Kid), himself, was dubious when he was referred to Brannaman as a consultant for his movie The Horse Whisperer. But he was entirely won over—as you are likely to be—by Brannaman’s evident sincerity. Brannaman is, according to all witnesses presented, exactly what he appears to be in Buck: a sensitive man, who as a child suffered so at the hands of a physically abusive father that he dedicated himself to a rejection of fear-based interactions. This, in turn, along with exposure to gifted mentors, transformed an innate talent into an extraordinary gift for horse training.

Brannaman spends much of the year crisscrossing the country conducting four-day workshops, helping people better understand their relationships to their horses. It is not a stretch at all to typify these sessions as corralled counseling sessions. Very early in the movie, Brannaman says, “A lot of times rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” (Sound familiar? Yes, Brannaman was heavily involved in The Horse Whisperer; both as source for author Nicholas Evans and technical advisor to Redford on the movie.) Brannaman explicitly compares the young, uncooperative or poorly trained horses to children. He advises firmness and discipline, but he emphasizes empathy and understanding—both as strategy and morality.

Cynical, and trained as I am to expect the ratings-grabbing twist, I must say I was waiting, maybe even impatiently, for a turn for the dark, a crack in Brannaman’s own discipline: Surely, he would lash out at a workshop attendee, he would be revealed to be a compulsive philanderer, he would have alienated all around him because he never learned to love. . . . Nope. Brannaman’s interactions with his audiences are warm and witty and self-deprecating, without being overly ingratiating. His family dynamic—what we see of it, through tour visits from his wife and his youngest daughter—is respectful and affectionate. His life may be idiosyncratic, but no more so than a traveling salesman of any type.

The documentary is presented in a deceptively straightforward way. There is no dark turn coming. All is as it appears. Though Brannaman has an elder brother—one presumably abused by their father, as well—who does not appear in the movie, he appears during the credits in a recent photo with Buck. Maybe he’s just shy. And though Buck has elder stepdaughters who also do not appear, they may just not be as in to horsey stuff as the youngest, Reata—and that’s where the magic happens (as it must seem to Meehl, a horse person who first met Brannaman while attending one of his seminars).

Watching Brannaman engage the horses is really quite remarkable. Without knowing a thing about traditional methods of “breaking” a horse (which Brannaman prefers to call “starting”), and fully aware of how tricksy directors and editors of documentaries can be, I can say that Brannaman’s confidence and surety around the horses is inarguable. Though Buck lacks much in the way of dramatic build or story progression, it accomplishes a lot merely by showing a man raised to be fearful who resisted and refused that lesson.