Movie Review: 'Buck' is a moving look at horse whisperer

Jack Nicholson has that famous line in "As Good As It Gets" in which he says to Helen Hunt, "You make me want to be a better man."

This is going to sound corny, but here goes: "Buck" will make you want to be a better person.

Buck Brannaman, the real-life "horse whisperer" who inspired the novel and the 1998 Robert Redford film, just oozes decency, grace and class. And the fact that he doesn't seem to take himself so damn seriously only adds to his allure. He has a charismatic, no-nonsense style and a dry, low-key sense of humor that help him connect with people of all ages and backgrounds as he travels the country giving clinics 40 weeks out of the year.

Cindy Meehl's documentary about Brannaman does teeter on the brink of deifying him, however. Idyllic shots of the sun-streaked countryside add to the film's warm glow. But then again, it's hard to argue with her: He seems like a truly good guy doing truly good work. Among those who can attest to his abilities is Redford himself, who shares an amusing anecdote about how Brannaman became more than just a consultant on his movie.

Winner of the documentary audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Buck" introduces us to the lifelong cowboy who helps trainers and riders of all levels learn to work more patiently and effectively with their horses. His philosophy is that you can't break a horse in a violent way, as others have done for years. Rather, he believes that a human and a horse should coexist instinctively, and that an animal can be a reflection of one's soul.

It's an unusually kind and introspective approach, but the fact that Brannaman honed it and reached this point of peace and success in his life, given his horrific upbringing, is what's truly remarkable. Brannaman recounts the physical and psychological abuse he and his brother endured as young boys at the hands of their alcoholic father. When their mother was around, she served as a buffer; once she died, their protector was gone, too. (Strangely, there's barely a mention of his brother throughout the rest of the film.)

Decades later, Brannaman is matter-of-fact in sharing these details; they're just part of who he is, they gave him an empathy for vulnerable creatures. But the memory of what he suffered through gets childhood friends choked up to this day, and Brannaman still has a close, touching relationship with the foster mother who ultimately raised him.

As sweet as Brannaman seems, though — and this is a guy who freely quotes Oprah Winfrey — he can also be tough. One dramatic segment about an hour into the film depicts his struggle with a particularly unruly 3-year-old colt; he has no qualms about berating its owner, and suggesting that whatever chaos is going on in her own life is to blame for the animal's violent nature. Clearly hitting too close to home, he reduces this woman to tears.

You may find yourself emotionally moved by "Buck," as well, for far more positive reasons.

"Buck," an IFC Films release, is not rated. Running time: 88 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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