Review: The ‘Buck’ stops in Aspen
July 14, 2011
ASPEN – Often, those who are attracted in an extreme way to animals are those who have a difficult time with human company. Exhibit one is the Crazy Cat Lady type, the shut-in who, upon her death, is discovered to have given over her house to her collection of felines.
Buck Brannaman spends 40 weeks of his year basically on his own, traveling across the U.S. in pursuit of animals. Horses, to be specific. Brannaman drives by his lonesome to horse-training workshops; after four days of interacting with people and horses, he heads down the dusty trail to the next stop.
But as Cindy Meehl’s documentary “Buck” shows, Brannaman isn’t a stranger in the company of other two-legged creatures. In fact, it is because of his people skills that he has become a legendary horse trainer. (Brannaman is not exactly the inspiration for “The Horse Whisperer,” as some promotional materials have it, but he was hired to work on the 1998 film, and director Robert Redford was impressed enough that Brannaman, over the course of shooting, became more and more vital to the movie.) The film follows Brannaman to a series of workshops, where he demonstrates that the same qualities that work with people – sensitivity, attention, patience, honesty – work with horses. This is not a trainer who believes in the iron fist; his primary message is that if you want a good horse, train a person to be a good owner.
Brannaman’s technique was learned the hard way. His father, who also worked with horses, was a mean s.o.b. who whipped the young Buck as if he were an animal. At the age of 3 and a half, Buck was doing rope-trick demonstrations, but out of fear, not out of love. His mother, who offered some measure of protection, died when Buck was young, and his life got only harder. A teacher and a set of foster parents finally rescued him.
Some people are hardened by such an experience; others use it as a formative life lesson. Brannaman falls firmly in the latter group, and this is the strength of “Buck.” Meehl connects the dots in a heart-warming way between Brannaman’s horrific childhood and the tender, evolved man he has become.
But “Buck” also tends toward flatness. We almost never see Brannaman in a setting other than the horse ring; we rarely hear him speak about a subject other than horses, and how horse-training relates to humanity. The climax is somewhat predictable – Brannaman goes nose to muzzle with Kelly, who, like Brannaman, has had a most problematic childhood – and the encounter’s conclusion is far from satisfying.
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“Buck” shows Monday, July 18, at Paepcke Auditorium as the opening event in the New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue series, presented by Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute. Director Cindy Meehl will be in attendance for a post-screening conversation.
The New Views series continues Monday evenings through Aug. 8. The lineup includes “Koran By Heart” (July 25), about a Koran reciting competition in Cairo; “Project Nim” (Aug. 1), about a 1970s experiment in teaching a chimpanzee to communicate; and “Forks Over Knives” (Aug. 8), an exploration of the connection between diet, health and disease.