Review: In 'Buck,' a compassionate cowboy speaks to people, beasts alike

Buck Brannaman commands the screen from the moment he appears in Buck, the documentary about him directed by Cindy Meehl.

Sundance Selects

Buck Brannaman commands the screen from the moment he appears in Buck, the documentary about him directed by Cindy Meehl.

Buck (PG) (88 min.) — Cindy Meehl's documentary makes you want to be a better person, someone closer in calmly authoritative spirit to Buck Brannaman. From the moment he strides on screen, there's something mystical about this Wyoming cowboy, whose posture in the saddle could be the model for a Frederic Remington sculpture.

Brannaman speaks in measured tones, confident but never talking down to whomever he speaks. Horses listen better than people sometimes. Although Brannaman disdains the term "horse whisperer," that's what he does for a living, making animals acting purely on instinct manageable without resorting to whips. He prefers patience and firm guidance, never striking the horse. It's a marvel watching a bond between man and beast forged so fast.

Gradually it's apparent that Brannaman is a people whisperer, too. The advice he provides also applies to raising children, a subject he understands all too tragically. Brannaman constantly felt the whip as a child, raised with his brother to be rope-trick rodeo stars by an abusive father. At night they'd quietly worry that the next day would be their last alive.

Brannaman survived solely through kindness from strangers and matured in a way that seems miraculous. He shrugs off suggestions that he's special, but that only makes Brannaman more inspiring. Each frame of Buck is filled with compassion, maybe a bit too much for cynical viewers who wouldn't understand goodness if it jumped up and kissed them.

Like her laconic subject, Meehl relies on repetition to get her point across, the mark of eager inexperience as a filmmaker. We get a few too many testimonials from horse owners and Robert Redford, who hired the cowboy as technical adviser for his adaptation of The Horse Whisperer, the best seller Brannaman partly inspired. We can draw our own conclusions about his gift by simply watching him work.

Notably the most striking sequence in Buck occurs when his methods don't succeed, or rather can't because the horse is just too far gone. In failure we see what he's really made of, and it's deeply moving. Buck is a movie to be revisited again and again, like passages from a satisfying self-help book. Riding experience isn't necessary to realize how extraordinary this man and his calling are. A

Steve Persall, Times film critic

Review: In 'Buck,' a compassionate cowboy speaks to people, beasts alike 07/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 5:30am]

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