(No longer in theaters)
Jun 17, 2011
Our therapeutic culture is lousy with stories of people struggling to spin childhood traumas into something that leaves the world a better place than the one that damaged them, but I’ve never seen a film in which the link between a trauma and its triumphant transmutation is as vivid as in Buck. Cindy Meehl’s shambling yet uncannily beautiful documentary tells the story of Buck Brannaman, a rangy, bow-legged cowboy who travels the country 40 weeks a year hosting four-day clinics. Brannaman was an adviser on the film of The Horse Whisperer and the moniker is often attached to him, but I’d call him the Horse Empath. He sees himself through the animals’ eyes and feels their childlike skittishness, their primal fear.
That empathy, it turns out, has roots in his past as the child of an abusive drunk who drilled him and his brother in the showbiz art of rope tricks — and also, after their mother died, beat them mercilessly for inexplicable infractions. Then a coach saw Buck’s ravaged back, the sheriff stepped in, and he and his brother went to live with a couple named the Shirleys, whose mode with the terrified child was firm but gentle. One of the first things his foster father taught him was how to shoe horses.
It’s well and good to hear Buck and other talking heads tell his story, but the film wouldn’t come to much if you didn’t feel the connection between his present and past in every frame. Heartbreaking historical footage of horses being whipped, “broken,” gives way to Buck hypnotically fluttering thin little flags in front of the creatures, pausing between motions for the animals to settle themselves.
The pace is transfixing. Other than The Black Stallion, horse movies tend to be choppy, edited around the animals, so their natural rhythms disappear into the space between the frames. Meehl, in her directing debut, is attuned to the rhythms of Buck, who’s attuned to the horses. “Everything’s a dance,” he explains from atop the saddle — and suddenly he and the horse have launched into a sideways canter so graceful, so unified, that Fred Astaire would stop and salute.
Buck does hint at darker aspects of its subject. He’s a loving but absent father, although one of his daughters helps out in his clinics and wields a pretty fair lasso. The climactic episode breaks Buck’s easy stride: an encounter with a violent, brain-damaged-at-birth horse that has been badly raised and is now, Buck says, “a predator.” The state of the horse, he lectures the owner, tells him quite a bit about her … and then, in a grimly prolonged shot, he calms the furious creature so that it lopes into the trailer that will carry it to its death. The horse didn’t fail us, says Buck. “We failed him.” He could be talking about the person he might have become — or any child brought into a world of grown-ups who don’t look, listen, or feel.