MPI // 2011 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 10th, 2011
There's no wisdom worth having that isn't hard won.
Buck Brannaman is a horse trainer like none you've ever seen. A trick roper as a child and an advisor on the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer, he is an incredible hand on a ranch and his skill with horses is uncanny. Any of the traditional ideas of breaking horses with violence never cross his mind but, with a gentle hand and a genuine respect for our equine friends, he can get even the toughest specimens to do nearly anything he wants. From director Cindy Meehl, Buck follows Brannaman across the highways of America as he puts on training clinics, not to show off his skills, but to educate horse owners and enthusiasts on how they can do the same (or at least an approximation of it). It is a lovely, heartfelt documentary about one man's rise from a terrible situation to create a good life for himself and help others along the way.
Brannaman is the kind of cowboy we see sometimes in the movies, but wonder whether they actually exist. There's one, at least. Brannaman is a quiet philosopher of the ranch and someone who cares about people as much as horses, but it didn't have to end up that way. As a young trick roper with his brother, Buck worked rodeo circuits for his drunken and abusive father, who would beat both mercilessly for a performance that was anything less than perfect. Thanks to the help of some very kind people, he was able to get out and grow up outside of his father's specter. Eventually, he got a job on a ranch and was introduced to Ray Hunt, a legendary trainer in his own right who taught Buck what he knew. Through that training and the raising of his foster parents, he broke the cycle of abuse to become gentle without being weak. He used his experience as tools to strengthen him and now uses that strength to help others, be they human or horse.
Brannaman looks at horses as extensions of their owners, whether while riding them or simply owning them. Whether there's any scientific basis to his view is irrelevant; the effect is what's important and there's no doubt that he makes keen observations of people based on how their horses act. There is evidence for this many times during the film, but none more so than at a clinic in Chico, CA, where a woman comes in with an almost homicidal stallion. This is a case where Brannaman's magic is not perfect and, after a number of tries, the he and the woman must admit a certain amount of defeat. Rather than acting defeated, though, Buck uses it as a learning experience and talks to the woman about her horses and her life, finally bringing her to realizations about herself that she seems to never have admitted. It's a moment where we see how much Brannaman cares about the people he's around, whether or not he's ever met them before.
Buck doesn't have much of a narrative thrust. Instead, Meehl serves up a biography of Brannaman and a look at his work, but he's easily engaging enough to carry the film. With his personality, his near magical abilities with horses, and the beautiful landscapes (highlighting everywhere from Maine to Montana), Buck is a genuinely compelling viewing experience. Meehl takes an even-handed approach with the footage, putting interviews together with his clinics to give a complete picture of the man and his work. From trainer to father to philosopher, we see multiple sides of Brannaman, a truly American figure who doesn't revel in his considerable skills or accomplishments, but confidently uses his talents to do his best to make the world a slightly better place. Buck is an excellent documentary that I can recommend to anyone, horse lover or not.
The DVD from MTI is also quite good. The disc features a strong anamorphic transfer that is as good as you can expect for a documentary, with strong detail and color. The sound isn't quite as solid, but still pretty good. The only real trouble with the mix is during the training sequences. When Brannaman is speaking through his microphone, there is a definite and distracting echo to an extent that I've never really experienced before. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but it detracts from what, otherwise, is a fine surround mix. For special features, we have a solid commentary with Brannaman, the director, and a producer, as well as about half an hour of deleted scenes, some of which are very good. A fine disc for an excellent documentary.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site