There’s a laconic strain of big-sky mysticism blowing in from the American West that bears a distinct whiff of air downwind of a stall. Buck Brannaman patiently sweeps such manure aside throughout Cindy Meehl’s debut doc Buck, which follows the four-day horse clinics Brannaman conducts most of each year. “A lot of people want it all to be fuzzy and warm and cosmic,” he tells one group. “But it’s no different with a horse than with a kid.”
This crucial line begins the tale of how Brannaman became the world-renowned master of natural horsemanship, an equestrian method that plumbs the human soul. “When something’s scared for their life—I understand,” Buck says, while TV clips show him as a pre-teen professional trick-roper being closely monitored by a cowboy father who would soon become a monster after his wife’s death, leaving the horsewhip marks on his two sons’s backs that sent them off to foster care.
While silent on the elder Brannaman’s fate, Buck reveals how the younger one came to inspire both the novel and film, The Horse Whisperer, perfecting a style of horsemanship that often looks like a magic act. Wisely, Meehl roots this redemption tale in carefully observed demonstrations at his clinics, even as the gorgeously shot landscape reminds us why stories like this are Hollywood’s very lifeblood.
Robert Redford relays a telling moment from directing The Horse Whisperer when the Hollywood-trained horse kept failing to nuzzle Scarlett Johansson. On-set consultant Brannaman suggested they try his horse Pep instead. “‘Oh, you don’t understand, Buck,’” Brannaman recalls being told. “‘Pep, he doesn’t know how to work on a mark, he’s not an actor.’ I said, ‘I know. He’s a horse.’” A horse who, needless to say, knocked the scene out like a pro.