out of Five
Running time: 88
Entertaining and emotionally engaging documentary with a powerful, important message delivered by an immensely likeable central character.
What's it all about?
Directed by former fashion designer Cindy Meehl, Buck centres on celebrated US horse trainer Buck Brannaman, who travels around the country teaching workshops (which he calls “clinics”) on how to interact with horses. Buck's secret is to work with the horse's natural instincts and develop mutual respect rather than trying to “break” a horse with violent behaviour.
The film also examines Buck's early life, through archive footage, home movies, photographs and interviews with family and friends, noting how he and his brother Smokie were forced into performing in an on-the-road rope trick act with their violently abusive alcoholic father before being sent to live with loving foster parents (Buck's kind-hearted foster mother Shirley appears briefly in the film) at the age of twelve. The film also spends time with Buck's wife Mary and their teenage daughter Reata, who seems to have inherited her father's rope skills.
Buck is an immensely likeable character whose innate goodness radiates off the screen. Consequently, it's fascinating to watch him go about his job (weirdly, a feather duster seems to be a key prop), particularly when he encounters a “crazy” yellow horse who's been both oxygen-deprived and mistreated by its owner. (To Meehl's credit, this sequence doesn't quite end the way you expect).
Meehl opts for a relatively loose structure throughout, following Buck to several different states as he travels around the country. There's also a highly entertaining interlude where Buck talks about his work on Robert Redford directed drama The Horse Whisperer (technically, he was an advisor and stunt man on the film, though an amusing anecdote makes clear that he was also an occasional horse-wrangler).
Buck's central message, about the importance of being kind to one another (human to horse and human to human alike) is both powerful and important and there's a profoundly moving moment when he talks about how he recognised that he had to move on from his past, break the cycle of abuse and deliberately live his life in a different, positive way. As such, his work with horses clearly illustrates his general philosophy in life, in a way that carries a hefty emotional kick.
Buck is an enjoyable, frequently fascinating and powerfully moving documentary that's well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.