Very Highly Recommended
Buck is an extraordinary film about the enduring power of simple human decency. In our jaded society, this fine documentary reminds us why there are no more admirable qualities in a human being than the all but dismissed virtues of kindness, patience, forgiveness and understanding.
As good as Buck is on a surface level as it tells the life story of Buck Brannigan, a cowboy/horse psychologist who spends 40 weeks on the road every year conducting seminars on how to train horses with the use of little if any force, it is really a story about life in general. Everything that Mr. Brannigan teaches about the need to approach young horses with empathy and consideration could equally be said about raising children. His admonishments to horse owners about the long-term negative effect of “breaking horses” with acts of verbal and physical violence applies with full force to explaining why children treated violently grow up to be adults who act violently.
The life story of Buck Brannigan, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s film, The Horse Whisperer (1998), is remarkable in and of itself. With his loving mother dying when he and his brother were quite young, they were violently abused behind the scenes by a father who paraded them across the national stage as young trick rope champions. When this abuse was discovered by a football coach at school, Buck and his sibling were removed from his father’s cruel care and placed in an extraordinarily loving foster home.
Buck’s foster mother became his surrogate mother, a bond on vivid display in this moving documentary. It is clear that Buck himself was able to move beyond his violent upbringing and, with the aid of his foster parents, become an admirable role model for everyone that he touches.
There are many poignant scenes in Buck, many of them involving the tearful reflections by horse owners as they express their everlasting regret concerning how they used to train horses through acts of violence simply because they didn’t know any better. In a sense Buck resembles a cowboy Ghandi or Martin Luther King, in that his teaching of non-violence has redefined a significant part of our national culture.
But the scene you are unlikely ever to forget involves a tragically abused horse that is even beyond Buck’s ability to reach. It becomes clear that this poor horse is mentally handicapped from an accident during his birth, problems compounded by an owner who was clueless to this poor stallion’s needs. As we watch Buck and his assistant try to psychologically crawl into this horse’s mind, we see a shocking scene where the horse attacks the assistant, viciously biting him in the head as he knocks him to the ground.
Subsequently, Buck addresses the crying owner as well as a group of concerned people who are attending his horse training seminar. He firmly but gently admonishes the owner that he suspects that part of the horse’s problems were a projection of the owner’s personal problems, something that she acknowledges while emotionally breaking down. He later tells the audience that this horse is nothing more or less than the equivalent of a child suffering from mental and emotional disabilities. I sat in the audience gasping in wonder as he told the audience that this poor horse may have had a chance if he had simply been given more tender, special care as a colt. As you watched the owner drive this poor, damaged horse away with the intention to have it “destroyed”, Buck reminds everyone that this is a tragedy that could have been avoided.
As a criminal defense lawyer who has represented people accused of violent crimes for over 35 years, I listened to Buck’s words and thought that they fully applied to human beings. No matter how hard we try to ignore the consequences of a person’s upbringing, the overwhelming majority of people who commit acts of violence are a product of a dysfunctional childhood. While I do not make that observation in an attempt to excuse someone who commits a violent crime, I look upon them with the same sense of sympathy and empathy that I looked upon that poor horse in this documentary.
My wife, Miss Monica Foster, is one of the leading national experts on the death penalty. She regularly lectures across the nation to other lawyers, frequently on the need to fully examine a client’s childhood and adolescence to determine what, if any, connection it has to the adult they have become.
In particular, she has a poster in her office which contains six pictures of young children, one a little girl in a Girl Scout outfit and another of a little boy making his First Communion. The top of the poster reads, “All of these children have one thing in common. As adults they are now on Death Row.” The bottom of the poster reads, “Don’t we owe it to society to find out why?”
Don’t we indeed. Go see Buck for yourself, and be prepared at some level for a transcendent experience.