Documentaries have a wonderful way of making us care about people and things way outside our own experience, and “Buck” is a prime example. My entire contact with horses has consisted of watching my father lose money at the track and of looking into the eyes of those forlorn carriage horses outside New York’s Central Park. Yet I was completely gripped by “Buck,” a documentary about a Montana horseman and teacher who brings a beautiful humanity to his work with these magnificent animals.
In “Buck,” director Cindy Meehl has two overriding points she wants to make, and she makes them: The first is that Buck Brannaman is a hell of a man — decent, honest and sensitive in the best way. The second is that there is no need ever to “break” a horse, a term Buck refuses to use. Horses are taught and led, through a training system that takes time to understand their fears and mental processes.
As the movie shows, Buck came by his empathy the hard way, by having a cruel alcoholic father who terrorized and beat him. Instead of ending up destroyed, Buck overcame his past and became especially alert to the frailties and terrors of defenseless animals. Just the sight of this guy on horseback is moving, a clear and respectful communion between man and horse, in which both transcend their limitations.
The documentary shows Buck over the course of a year, as he travels and teaches. Along the way, Robert Redford is interviewed about Buck’s contribution to “The Horse Whisperer” (1998). Redford likes him, so he can’t be a phony.
Throughout Buck insists that whoever you are, it will become reflected in your relationship with your horse. What he means by this is demonstrated in a long section, late in the film, in which he tries to get through to a horse that has been mishandled and misunderstood since birth. Buck barely contains his anger at the owner, and of course this is personal for him: He knows how awful it is to have a bad parent.
In this way, “Buck” becomes about something bigger than one person’s story or about animal training. It’s about the pratfalls of neurosis and about the responsibilities of parenthood. It’s about looking out for weaker creatures and doing the right thing when the right thing is required — not years later, when it’s too late.
“Buck” is rated PG and is showing at the State Theatre.