Life lessons abound in Buck, most of them tied to endlessly reiterated comparisons between man and horse. That perpetually problematic temptation to project human emotions on animals is virtually a given in Cindy Meehl’s film, considering that her project is a documentary profile of the man who helped serve as the inspiration for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer. Buck Brannaman doesn’t actually whisper to any of his equine subjects, but he does spend nine months out of the year traveling the country and giving clinics on horse training, countering notions that violent “breaking” is the only way to tame a bucking bronco and proving that the establishment of an occasionally firm, but always respectful rapport with the animal is both a more humane and more effective means of bringing wild horses to heel.
Buck is also a man given to anthropomorphizing rhetoric, a tool that likely serves him well in his clinics, but proves less effective as the central device in a feature film. Aided and abetted by Meehl, the horse tamer is a constant fount of parallelism, whether comparing his boyhood self (a frightened kid, mercilessly beaten by his father) to an abused horse or suggesting that a person’s character and relationship to his family can be deduced by his treatment of his equine pets. As if to prove the latter point, the daughter of this expert horse handler puts in a perfunctory appearance, so we can see that Buck’s excellent relationship with animals does indeed mirror his strong sense of family values.
These scenes with his offspring—and others with his wife—are among the dullest in the film. That’s because what makes the mild-mannered, if straight-shooting, Buck an interesting subject for a documentary is not his family life, nor is it his personality or his backstory; it’s his remarkable facility with horses. Virtually all the film’s best scenes show the man in action, as he demonstrates proper handling technique or hauls in an intractable animal with a seeming minimum of effort.
The film’s dramatic peak comes via a riveting late sequence in which Buck attempts to tame an especially dangerous animal. Meehl wisely devotes a good 10 minutes of screen time to this particularly perilous showdown, giving us such gruesome details as the horse biting one of Buck’s associates in the head. But even here, neither the subject nor the director can resist drawing one final lesson from the experience. “The human failed that horse,” concludes Buck, reiterating one last time the parallel between an individual’s treatment of an animal and the conduct of her personal affairs (the horse’s owner had previously admitted her life’s a mess). Even when Meehl hits on first-rate footage of a fascinating practice, she insists—in collusion with Buck—on undermining its strength by reducing it to little more than a device for the delivery of a simplistic, shopworn message.