As easygoing and gentle as its subject, Cindy Meehl’s documentary about Buck Brannaman, the model for “The Horse Whisperer” (both book and film), initially appears to be just a pleasant, undemanding portrait of a likable man. But it’s actually as much about how people ought to treat one another as it is about its subject’s mode of training animals.
Much of the film is devoted to scenes of Brannaman working with horses in the corral, exhibiting his natural horsemanship technique—which involves tenderness and sensitivity as opposed to commands and physical punishment—to owners and observers in the clinics he conducts through much of the year. But these are complemented by material sketching Brannaman’s difficult childhood, when he and his older brother were molded by a demanding, often brutal father into a pair of rope-twirling kid performers who gained a certain amount of fame but were intensely. After their mother’s death, their father’s abusiveness increased still further, and Buck eventually wound up with understanding, supportive foster parents whose good-natured sensitivity helped bring him out of his shell. He eventually fell under the influence of Ray Hunt, a legendary trainer who pioneered the idea of using quiet, methodical kindness in dealing with horses, and became his protégé.
The connection between the two strands of the story is what gives “Buck” its deeper resonance. As a kid Brannaman was like one of the troubled animals he now works with, skittish and afraid because of his father’s alcohol-fueled abuse. He was saved through the intervention of people who understood his pain and dealt with it with kindness and empathy. It’s the same process that Brannaman now brings to his training of horses and teaches to others as well. It doesn’t always work—a closing sequence follows him trying to connect with an animal so severely troubled that it will always remain dangerous—but he doesn’t blame the horse as much as the treatment it received in the past. And he always places responsibility on people rather than the horse. His entire life is a call for truly humane treatment of animals—which, as his own experience suggests, involves our treatment of one another as well.
Meehl has put together Brannaman’s story with skill and good taste. The footage of his clinics—shot by Guy Mossman and Luke Geissbuhler—is complemented by the archival footage she’s assembled and interview excerpts, both with Brannaman himself and with friends and relatives (including his foster-mother, still feisty in her late eighties, and Robert Redford, to whom he served as a technical advisor on “Whisperer”). A well-chosen selection of songs provides a fine backdrop to the visuals.
The result is a film that on the surface seems to be about a fairly narrow subject, but proves to be about universal human truths.