Movie review: Buck

By Peter Calder

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Brannaman's skill with horses made him legendary. Photo / Supplied
Brannaman's skill with horses made him legendary. Photo / Supplied

Documentary film-makers spend much of their time looking for suitable subjects. Cindy Meehl, a successful fashion designer, found her subject and became a film-maker so she could tell his story.

One of the best documentaries in last year's film festival, Buck is about Buck Brannaman, who inspired the novel The Horse Whisperer and Robert Redford's film adaptation (on which Brannaman worked as a stunt double and advisor).

To say that it's a film about horses that will captivate people who have no interest in horses is to damn it with faint praise. Buck put me in mind of last year's sleeper hit Bill Cunningham New York, which spun documentary gold from the life of an unlikely and unassuming figure - in that case a society photographer.

Meehl participated in one of Brannaman's horse-training clinics and thought his magic touch with the big animals needed to be shared with a wider audience.

But what she uncovered - and has delivered on screen - is a portrait of an American original, a cowboy philosopher whose unique mix of modesty and confidence makes him an irresistible character. Anyone who has a heart and a soul will thrill to the story told here.

The best documentaries delve into extraordinary lives and Brannaman's is that. A childhood star (with his brother) as a rope-trick performer he transcended a brutalising home life to become the leading modern-day practitioner of what he calls "natural horsemanship" - to whose founders she pays due credit. He doesn't do any actual whispering, though the horses seem to understand what is inaudible to humans: "I ain't helping people with horse problems," he says. "I'm helping horses with people problems."

Meehl's light touch ensures the film avoids both cliche and hagiography and she places the man in his setting with the touch of a veteran, though the episodic style reveals her inexperience at times. There are storytelling holes too - we ache to know what became of his brother - but this is a very strong film that lingers in the memory.

Stars: 4.5/5
Director: Cindy Meehl
Running time: 88 mins
Rating: PG (Violence, Coarse Language)
Verdict: Much more than a horse film

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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