Buck Brannaman is no horse whisperer, but he is definitely a horse talker, an equine conversationalist with a light touch and a relaxed Midwestern drawl. Brannaman is a horse trainer and a former rodeo circuit child star, a difficult past fraught with tragedy and abuse. Director Cindy Meehl, here making her debut, has made a tasteful, thoughtful if not particularly filling tribute to the man and his unique method of approaching horses as a friend, not an overlord. Buck is a documentary that starts strong, coasting on Brannaman low-key self-assurance and then bogs down a bit by focusing on the routine horse training "clinics" that keep Brannaman employed and traveling cross country forty weeks of the year.
The most compelling aspects of Buck pop up very early on - Meehl smartly avoids giving us the full details behind Brannaman's childhood but allows the man to speak of his love for horses that has shaped his training methods. Typically, horses are broken down with a variety of implements, human cruelty and domineering being a key one, and for Brannaman, that's just not the way to go. The pain he'd experienced early on in life has made him incredibly cognizant of another's suffering, and his relationship with horses is no doubt a outgrowth of the trainer's own overcoming.
Touting a mic and a cowboy get-up, he is commanding without being overbearing, relaxed yet very much in control. The wisdom of a lifetime is visible when Brannaman steps out with a horse - his movements, his manner of speaking, and the animal's reactions are the strongest moments in the documentary.
When we do learn more about Brannaman's background, the film shifts focus briefly onto his wife and daughters, a sweet aside that helps us appreciate how the long-distance relationship stays afloat. It's immediately following that aside that the doc loses some of it's appeal - it's all well and good to see the exceedingly talented man work with horses, but unless you are a particular enthusiast, the clinics begin to melt together. The ninety minute runtime is surely on the extended side and the film could have remained strong or even stronger by losing ten to fifteen minutes.
Still, what's here is excellent viewing, a different world away from citylife and yet very much populated by people with the same problems. "A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I'm helping horses with people problems," says Brannaman, and an incident involving a wily and dangerous stud effectively forms a third-act climax that testifies to those very words. By the time we get there though, the doc has overstayed its welcome despite a strong finish and a fascinating subject.
A 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is reflective of a modest documentary. Buck's travels take him to some dusty terrain and the color and detail on this DVD are commendable. Is it a notably outstanding transfer? Definitely not. Is it perfectly suitable for its subject matter? No doubt.
There is one element that no doubt complicated the sound mix and that is Buck's tendency to lead his clinics via a microphone wrapped around his head, the speechifying causing a slight echo that slightly cheapens crisp narration that frequently intersects with it. Otherwise, it's a vibrant, strong mix, with special attention seemingly paid to the horses, immersing you in the interaction between horse and rider.
A trailer and approximately a half hour of deleted scenes, varying from under a minute to six minutes, that capture some tender asides and answer some pressing questions (a very brief recapitulation of Buck's brother's life begs to be included in the film). It's not much, but what's there definitely adds to the overall package.
Buck works as well as it does because, like it's subject, it doesn't try hard to impress, winning you over with an unhurried pace and a winning story of a man who chose not to sit around licking old scars. There may not be quite enough material here for 90 compelling minutes, but Buck Brannaman's easy charm and confident sincerity make it a pleasure to share in his company and a DVD to be Recommended.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...