Buck Brannaman is no ordinary horse trainer, and that's unfortunate because thanks to Cindy Meehl's film about him, ordinary horse trainers now have a lot to live up to.
They already did, of course: Brannaman was an essential influence on both Nicholas Evans' book The Horse Whisperer and the Robert Redford movie it became. But now Buck, Meehl's debut documentary, makes it very easy for very many people to see why. If people ever still say they need to see a man about a horse, and the man is Brannaman, well then all involved tend to be the better for it.
Persuasion is essential to his technique (it can seem like communion), but so is the subjects' innate majesty and intelligence. Meehl has recognized that a big part of what Brannaman does is allow animals to make up for human failings.
He has a wife and a teenaged daughter, both evidently beloved, but he doesn't see them much. He's on the road for most of each year, giving clinics all over the country for troubled horses and their troublers. As Brannaman puts it, "A lot of the time, I'm not helping people with horse problems; I'm helping horses with people problems."
Usually he'll begin lightly, perhaps by pointing out that our urge to strap the hides of other dead animals on horses' backs and then crawl on them with our hands around their necks might require some prefatory diplomacy. Then he'll continue by getting into the nitty gritty, also lightly.
Although straightforwardly a fond profile of this man and his self-evident calling, Meehl's movie is predicated on the notion that the humane treatment of an animal, when productive, can and does seem to us like some dazzling display of magic. It's sort of a depressing testament, but that doesn't make Brannaman's accomplishments any less profound.
As kids, Buck and his brother enjoyed a spell of minor celebrity for their rope tricks on the rodeo circuit. They did not enjoy the constant and intense abuse from their alcoholic tyrant father. The brother's absence from Meehl's film is not accounted for; the father's feels like a relief. Horsemanship, Brannaman tells his clients more than once, is about controlling your emotions. That qualifies it as a spiritual discipline. "There's a difference between firm and hard," he also tells them, and, "You have to be a parent," which might further qualify his own horsemanship as a way of working out his own issues.
Meehl for her part doesn't much discern between horsemanship and a kind of lifestyle salesmanship, so Buck sometimes gives off a slightly hectoring vibe, like, "You know, Robert Redford, who is handsome and famous and outdoorsy, really likes this guy, and you should too." Well, hey, it seemed to work at Sundance, where Redford reigns and Buck won the Audience Award for documentary this year.
This film isn't exactly long on story, and structurally it seems like little more than an 88-minute trailer for itself, but Meehl has summoned a powerful formula: the disarming pleasure of taking in touchy-feely platitudes from such a no-nonsense fella. Brannaman's rough upbringing and cowboy laconicism cuts nicely against the inherent cuddliness of his craft.
Perhaps more importantly, though: Nobody needs to get broken for him to get results.