In the prologue to Buck, first-time film director Cindy Meehl quickly establishes three things: tone, place and her central character. A dusky landscape, a rush of horses and details like fringed chaps, cowboy boots and a hat sketch in Buck Brannaman. Then the story of an extraordinary horse trainer unfolds. But Buck, short for his childhood nickname Buckshot, is no ordinary man.
Brannaman inspired Nicholas Evanss novel The Horse Whisperer. That in turn spurred Robert Redford to make a film of the same name. Brannaman served as a consultant to Redford. Excerpts of their relationship appear in Buck, a new documentary that won the audience favorite award earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It richly deserves the award and already has opened in selected cities across America.
In the last month, Brannaman has appeared on national television and is acquiring celebrity recognition. Its doubtful he welcomes that as youll see when you take in the film at The Back Space Theatre on Main Avenue. Opening today, the Durango venue is the only one, except Aspen, between Denver and Phoenix.
Anticipating high interest, Back Space owner Doug Sitter has scheduled three showings a day through July 17, then two showings on each of the next two days. Dont miss it. Youll remember and talk about this film for a long time.
Meehl has an instinct for storytelling. Once she establishes Buck in his Western universe, she fills in the present and the past with seamless ease.
Early on, Brannaman casually drops something about his childhood. Just as casually, director Meehl picks that up later and shows us film footage of Buck and his older brother Smokie doing rope tricks as young rodeo stars. The offhand technique gradually brings forward more details of an abusive childhood.
Ace Brannamans mistreatment of his children surfaces in stills and testimony, but it doesnt dominate Bucks story. The fragments function as counterpoints to the main story line the man Brannaman has become: a calm, insightful trainer, a purposeful professional and a thoughtful husband and father.
Meehl establishes each layer yet avoids choppiness. At the end, you have more than a complete portrait of a mature man and gifted teacher.
That said, this is not a honey-colored Disney portrait. Not everything is resolved animal or human.
Two episodes may be difficult to watch, and theres one loose thread. A brief but important black-and-white film clip shows the old way of breaking horses. It flashes by and underscores Brannamans more-humane approach where unspoken respect for a fellow creature is the guiding principle.
The second uncomfortable episode shows an aggressive horse and confused owner. Brannaman has only limited but touching success with this pair, but by including it the director shows us his realism.
The loose thread involves Smokie. As a child, hes mentioned frequently. But Smokie as an adult disappears from the film without explanation. In the final credits, there is a still photo that might be the brothers as adults, but its unclear. As careful as the director has been to weave all her narrative threads into a compelling story, that one is dropped. Its left as a mystery.
When Brannaman talks about the human relationship with animals, he often uses the metaphor of dance. The most poetic moments in the film show Brannaman riding his own horse, and it is dancelike. In an extended sequence at the end of the film, Brannamans philosophy is made visible.
He and his horse ride through open fields of waving grass, moving forward and back, turning, side stepping, going forward again. They appear to be in silent communication, dancing as if they were one creature gliding over the earth.
Buck is an extraordinary biopic, so much more than a movie about one mans life with and for animals.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.