When Buck Brannaman speaks, people listen. Throughout Cindy Meehl’s documentary Buck, the master horseman dishes out cowboy wisdom and sage advice like he wrote the book on Western stoicism, reciting poetic musings about the interconnectedness between man and horse with an earnestness that feels tied to the surrounding countryside. Only the wind rushing through the Montana pines feels as elemental. This quiet but impassioned fervency inspires every frame of Buck, a rawhide look at Buck’s life and legacy as one of the world’s foremost horse trainers. Nine months out of the year, he teaches four-day seminars all over the United States, preaching the gospel of positive energy, honor, and integrity when it comes to human contact with horses. Like listening to a rousing general or possessed preacher, troubled horse owners stand at Buck’s attention no matter the monetary cost.
Not surprisingly, Buck’s one-sided discourses define much of the film. Whether he’s talking via a “Madonna microphone” to customers in the ring or espousing the complexities of his lifestyle with daughter Reata, a tenacious teenager who shares her father’s love for horses, Buck places a special emphasis on verbal tenor. When Buck says, “Everything you do with a horse is a dance,” it’s not just the idea that’s important, but the tone in which the idea is expressed. At first, this lyrical way of viewing the world and its harsh complexities is intoxicating, especially when Buck’s voiceover narration overlaps with majestic images of horses running through the morning mist on a Midwestern ranch. But the filmmakers keep pushing the cowboy mysticism at a relentless pace, ultimately stripping Buck’s words of their necessary urgency.
While Buck effortlessly merges the past and present, illuminating both its subject’s abusive childhood growing up a star trick-roper in the 1960s and his relationship with mentor horseman Ray Hunt, Meehl’s structure often feels overtly opportunistic. It’s a trend that begins in the section covering Buck’s involvement with The Horse Whisperer, in which Robert Redford makes it a point to deify Buck as a kind of blue-collar savior. One can tell Redford admires the hell out of Buck, but the director’s blind respect becomes a tool for the filmmakers to create easy reflections on a far more complex matter of motivation. Redford’s direct words are carefully edited to create a dichotomy between Hollywood artifice and Buck’s more natural brand of cowboy authenticity, diminishing one while celebrating the other. None of it feels earned, and almost all of it feels unnecessary.
In fact, much of Buck has an air judgment surrounding it, something that doesn’t necessarily emanate from Buck himself, but the filmmakers manipulating his life story. The problematic tone comes to a head late in the film when Meehl structures Buck’s brave attempt to train a dangerous horse as a type of narrative climax, positioning her subject as a hero and the animal’s careless owner as the disgraced villain. Many critics have suggested the sequence is necessary because it shows the dark flipside to Buck’s training, the fact that he can’t save every troubled horse that comes his way. Yet the material isn’t the problem, but the way it’s framed cinematically. The entire sequence is constructed much like a western standoff—widescreen compositions placing Buck and the horse at odds, dramatic editing techniques, and finally a sobering conclusion played for maximum impact. “This horse tells me a lot about you,” Buck finally says to the horse’s weeping owner, putting a nice cherry on top of this self-aggrandizing sequence that cements Meehl’s film as manipulative in nature.
Still, Buck the man seems so much more nuanced than the filmmakers documenting him. There’s so much to glean from his outlook on positive feel and energy, especially when it comes to handling the frustrations of everyday life. One only has to watch the great sequence where Buck puts on an impressive trick-rope show for his family and friends late in the film, a performance once defined by childhood trauma that now represents a particular personal freedom, something so seamless it doesn’t need the crutch of narrative manipulation to stand out. In this one moment, Buck understands that true western heroes don’t need to toot their own horns to be great.
Image and sound are adequate, but overall the presentation is nothing extraordinary. The rich Midwestern imagery glistens in the background as Buck works his cowboy magic to great affect, and the nicely calibrated standard-definition transfer illuminates the confluence of greens, blues, and oranges that seem to follow him from one small town to the next. Buck's nostalgic musical score is well balanced with the man's lengthy verbal interludes, instilling a lyrical sense of timing in even the most mundane moments of the film.
The audio commentary featuring Buck, director Cindy Meehl, and producer Julie Goldman sounds like it was recorded underwater. To make matters worse, their thoughts are rambling, tangential, and disorganized. Multiple deleted scenes are also included, but none of them add to the overall content of the film. Most are just small clips featuring more of Buck's musings—in-jokes for the filmmakers. A theatrical trailer rounds out the uninspiring package.
Despite its subject’s endless appeal, Buck wants to be a modern-day western fable so badly that it ends up bastardizing the very noble stoicism it claims to celebrate.