2 1/2 stars out of 4
If you’re deeply involved or enamored with horses, you’re probably already aware of Dan “Buck” Brannaman. For everyone else, Brannaman is one of the most highly respected equine authorities in the world and provided the inspiration for the title character in the novel “The Horse Whisperer” later played by Robert Redford in the film of the same name. Brannaman also acted as Redford’s body double in the film.
As subjects for documentaries go, Brannaman is pure gold. A throwback to a time long ago, Brannaman is a man in his early 50s who could rightfully be considered the best in the world at what does. When on the clock (and often times when he’s not), Brannaman is the embodiment of the Western frontier; a graceful man who with the most subtle of movements and minimal uttering of sounds, he can make a horse do literally anything he wants. Brannaman’s professional talents can rightfully be described as bordering on the otherworldly.
Brannaman’s life prior to becoming a horse expert is also very film-worthy. After the death of his mother at an early age, Brannaman and his brother were raised by a single father who, at best, could be described as a strict and maniacal disciplinarian. That Brannaman grew up to be such a thoughtful and introspective man is amazing considering where he started. Far surpassing all of the horse stuff, the parts of “Buck” dedicated to Brannaman’s formative years are the highlight in rookie director Cindy Meehl’s heartfelt but often overtly fawning film.
Although not always glaringly obvious, it’s pretty clear Meehl absolutely worships Brannaman which, given his story, is kind of hard not to do. However this isn’t a live-action bio-drama, it’s a documentary, the type of movie where filmmaker and subject need to be emotionally and somewhat intellectually detached.
Meehl gets close to being unbiased during a scene late in the film when Brannaman is presented with a situation involving a rowdy and headstrong horse that leaves him — or rather the horse’s owners — with few appealing options. There are instances with horses, as with many other animals and some people, where even the greatest talent, insight or guidance as no effect and unpleasant scenarios must be considered.
While none of it is bad and almost all of it is uplifting in one way or another, “Buck” always comes across as emotionally manipulative and exceedingly sincere. Think of it as kind of a western-themed Hallmark card. It’s warm, thoughtful, well-intended, superbly crafted and almost instantly forgettable. (IFC)