With their frequent focus on leftish politics, international issues and celebrity lifestyles, we think of theatrically released documentaries as primarily designed to play on the coasts rather than in the "flyover" states. But Buck is that rare documentary feature that seems ideal for a solid run in the Middle American theatres that would never book the new Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore. Its emphasis on spectacular landscapes populated by barns, corrals and rolling grass, and on values like family and community, holds a mirror up to lives rarely chronicled with such sympathy in American nonfiction film.
It's good to be Robert Redford's buddy, especially when it comes to screening at Sundance, where this character study about an animal consultant to Redford's movie The Horse Whisperer first appeared. "Buck" is Buck Brannaman, a plainspoken cowboy on a mission to make the world a better place for horses. He travels the country, teaching horse owners how to train their animals without whips, stress positions and other brutal if traditional tactics he terms "medieval." He's a horse whisperer who pays so much attention to the animals he can sense the smallest nuance in their behavior, and he gains their trust so easily that within minutes of a first meeting he can take an animal who's never been ridden and saddle it, or have it following his commands without raising his voice or even holding the reins in his hands.
All of this would be fascinating enough, but what makes this movie truly special is that the source of Buck's uncanny gift is actually an acute childhood sorrow. He and his brother were noteworthy trick ropers while still youngsters, touring the rodeo circuit and even appearing in national TV commercials and on talk shows. The other kids envied them, but never knew the dark secret behind such early achievement: a brutal, sadistic and alcoholic father, who beat his boys savagely and incessantly for the smallest childish infraction or any imaginary "error" in their act.
The backstory makes Buck an appealing and frequently moving story of redemption, as Buck manages to transform bad into good, and sorrow into love. Having felt the lash himself, he dedicates his life to coming between it and the animals that are such a part of the world as he knows it. When he fails an animal, as in a long and fascinating sequence about a feral horse that attacks one of Buck's assistants and wounds him so badly the horse has to be put down, Buck grieves like a parent, with a characteristic stoicism and grace.
There are quibbles to be made about some of director Cindy Meehl's structural choices, which border on the hagiographic at times. Buck is an exemplar of a new philosophy of horse training, but it's more than halfway into the film before we learn he is part of a movement, and is not its inventor but rather a gifted disciple. The Redford connection is also introduced rather late in the game-at Sundance, there was a good deal of laughter when the festival's famous patriarch suddenly materialized inside one of its programming choices. In both cases, Meehl is sequencing her story to make Buck seem a self-generated saint before letting details that would lessen that message work their way in.
More bizarrely and critically, Buck fails to give any details whatsoever about the fate of the other human victim in Buck's story. Because the archival footage is taken from their time as a family act, sequences about their shared abuse always show Buck with his brother. But his brother never appears in the movie, and the adult Buck never addresses the rest of his brother's story, despite a fair amount of speculation about the long-term psychological impacts of child abuse. Were the brother's choices as affirmative as Buck's? We can't know, and the reluctance of Buck to address the question makes us wonder. Meehl does such a good job of making us care about the pair of blond boys with the uncanny trick roping skills that the sin of omission is almost ominous.
These are flaws for sure, but they don't keep Buck from being a special experience. The cowboy myth that's such a part of the American psyche gets a kinder, gentler face in Buck Brannaman, but in his own way, he's no less a hero than Gary Cooper or John Wayne. And the irony is that, in field populated by flamethrowers proposing impractical solutions to intractable social problems, this quiet character study is a movie that, if widely seen, actually could make the world a better place.
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Director: Cindy Meehl
Producer: Julie Goldman
Running time: 88 min
Release date: Unset