Buck Brannaman as himself in the movie "Buck." (Ezra D. Olsen / Sundance…)
"Buck," the story of the real horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, comes at you with the understated eloquence of the man himself — a soft-spoken cowboy philosopher changing lives as he gentles horses, an aw-shucks hero who never claims to be more than an ordinary man. What a relief in times saturated with news of the worst of humanity to see something of the best.
In her first documentary, which won the coveted audience award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, director Cindy Meehl mirrors that sensibility. The film is deeply moving yet never maudlin in telling this hard-knocks-but-hope-infused story.
It would have been tempting given the broad strokes of Buck's life: A childhood marked by early stardom — he and his older brother were young trick-roping sensations — and vicious beatings at the hand of his father, the early death of his mother, the foster family that rescued him and the safety and solace he found in horses. Instead, Meehl allows the facts, simply told, to carry the weight.
The idea for the documentary came after Meehl attended one of the horse clinics Buck runs, a business that keeps him on the road most of the year. The fashion designer shelved her couture work for filmmaking, pushed, she says in production notes, by a story she felt compelled to tell.
The images — both beautiful and evocative — are culled from more than 300 hours of footage, much of it shot over two years by cinematographers Guy Mossman ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work") and Luke Geissbuhler ("Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"). The filmmaker and editor Toby Shimin rely on a mix of old film clips, current interviews and lots of day-in-the life shots to build a remarkably candid and intimate look at Buck and his world.
The film opens with a shot of horses running free, manes flying in the wind, dust kicking up in their wake, an endless stretch of sky overhead. It is a smart setup that underscores the beauty and power of the animal — at the same time reminding us that the very act of owning and riding a horse takes away that freedom.
Then the camera shifts to Buck, who is introduced without a word. Long before you see his face, you get a measure of the man — solitary; a steady stride that is confident without being cocky; the cowboy hat, the chaps, the boots and the rest worn for utility, not style.
Later in the film, Robert Redford, who brought him on as a consultant during the filming of "The Horse Whisperer," recalls Buck walking into his Santa Monica production office for a meeting, dressed exactly like that. But what Redford first took as affect he soon realized was authentic and adopted the essence of that authenticity for his character on-screen.
There is a funny story of the eight hours spent by the movie's horse trainer trying to get the trick horse to do what was required for one scene, and the 15 or so minutes it took Buck to get his horse to step in and pull it off when the filmmakers finally turned to him for help. His take on Hollywood is ironic, humorous and says as much about the ways and whims of Hollywood as the horse and the scene in question.
But most of the voices in the documentary, other than Buck's, are the people whose lives he has touched. They are an eclectic mix — some competing and showing thoroughbreds, other raising and refining working cattle horses, some riding for pleasure, nearly all coming into his workshops thinking there is little he can teach them. And then he does.
He's a natural in the training ring, as much raconteur as resource. As he walks his classes through what a rider is actually asking of the horse — from the halter on his head to the stranger climbing on his back — you come to understand the core of his philosophy, that horses are a mirror of the person riding them. Though he suggests anyone can learn his techniques, just watching him work with a horse, it's hard not to believe there is a mystical connection that no workshop can pass along.
It is a connection that comes at some cost. As he drives from one ranch to another, you see the tug between home and work, softened during the summer months, when his youngest daughter travels with him.
These days, Buck has an easy smile, which by the end of the film you know was hard won. He has a loving family, longtime friends, a thriving business, but mostly he has the horses. They remind him of who he is and where he came from.
Together, thanks to the equally gentle touch of the filmmaker, they transport us into a better world, if only for a bit.