There is probably nothing tougher in this ultra-cynical age than selling a competely straightforward PG-rated movie about a middle-age white man who exudes old-fashioned niceness.
Like everyone else, I had read great things about “Buck” going all the way back to its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, but was I eager to see a picture about a gentle Westerner who travels the country giving clinics on how to raise horses without “breaking” them? Not really.
In the current Film Comment, Woody Allen talks about his preference for urban films over stories set in the country and this lifelong city dweller tends to agree with the creator of “Manhattan” and “Midnight in Paris.”
I can appreciate classic Westerns like “The Searchers” and “Ride the High Country” but they don’t hit me where I live the way that a movie like “The Godfather” or “Annie Hall” does.
So, I was very surprised to be blown away by “Buck” when I saw it a few days ago. The movie is, technically, about a man who has devoted much of his life advocating humane training for horses, but just beneath the surface, director Cindy Meehl (below) delivers one of the most moving tales of survival that you are ever likely to see.
Buck Brannaman has created an ever-growing group of admirers from the four-day clinics he has been conducting around the country for decades. Buck works with the horses and their riders, showing how his gentle approach can produce small miracles in disciplining and training.
As the movie proceeds, however, we see that his way of treating horses can be applied to people, too. Indeed, unless a person changes his or her relationship to the horse, the animal won’t change either.
Meehl draws us into Buck and his clinics — which are as much about helping people as helping horses — before we get into his backstory as a terribly abused child.
Brannaman and his brother were rodeo performers from early childhood, but their “act” was the result of physically punishing training conducted by their brutal dad. The father was counterbalanced by Buck’s loving mother, but she died when the boy was just about to enter his teens, leaving him and his brother feeling hopelessly defenseless when it came to their father’s rages.
The miracle of Buck Brannaman’s life is that his own mistreatment didn’t make him bitter and violent. Instead, it made him determined to be kind and gentle to people and animals — and in the course of finding that peaceful path, Buck made a career and a name for himself.
The craftsmanship of “Buck” is subtle, so that the film casts its spell over a viewer before you know what’s hit you. And Meehl found a heart-wrenching climax for her movie with a woman who brings a wild (and possibly brain-damaged) horse to Buck that is simply too far gone to be helped in any significant way.
You don’t need to have any interest in cowboys or horses to find “Buck” one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences so far this year.
(“Buck” opened at the Bow Tie Criterion in New Haven on Friday and will debut July 8 at the Garden Cinemas in Norwalk and the Bethel Cinema.)