On Movies: The life of the 'horse whisperer,' uncut

The film doesn't gloss over the abuse "Buck" Brannaman suffered as a child. He thinks showing his vulnerability helps to put people at ease.
The film doesn't gloss over the abuse "Buck" Brannaman suffered as a child. He thinks showing his vulnerability helps to put people at ease. (CINDY MEEHL/Sundance Selects)
Posted: July 03, 2011

Yoda in chaps?

Buck, the fine Cindy Meehl film that won the U.S. documentary audience award at Sundance in January and now is playing at the Ritz Five, offers an inspiring portrait of Dan M. "Buck" Brannaman, an itinerant horse trainer - although he prefers the term "horse gentler." With his Western drawl and Zen disposition, Brannaman comes off like the sage of the sagebrush, hauling his horses around the land and offering clinics to riders and owners. With Brannaman, it's not just about treating your colt, or your filly, right. It's about treating other people - friends, family, strangers - the same way you'd treat a horse. With respect, compassion, even love.

When he's not traveling and teaching, which he is for the better part of the year, Brannaman lives on a ranch in Wyoming, with his wife, teenage daughter, and a bunch of dogs. And about 30 horses, too.

But these days, Brannaman, who was the real-life inspiration for Nicholas Evans' best seller, The Horse Whisperer, and served as the equine adviser on Robert Redford's film adaptation, is spending more time in airports than in stables and corrals. The star of his own movie - his life story, complete with painful tales of childhood abuse by a raging father - has been much in demand.

"I was up on the back of a horse when I was 3 years old," Brannaman said the other day from an airport lounge in Denver. "That's when I first started to ride, and that's the age, believe it or not, that I started doing rope tricks, that's when I started learning it. And by the time I was 6, we were doing it professionally, getting paid, my brother and I."

There are TV clips of the little Brannaman boys - Buck and Smokie - doing their fancy lariat moves in the film. As part of the act, Buck would do his rope tricks wearing a blindfold. That was his father's idea.

And if he didn't get it right, the boy would get lashed with a belt when they returned home. For Brannaman, who saw Meehl's completed film for the first time at the Sundance festival, recounting those experiences to others has become a way to connect.

"This isn't really the first time I've shared some of these things," says Brannaman, who published a memoir, The Faraway Horses, in 2001.

"In my clinic I've found that if I can share some intimate details of my life, and show my vulnerability, that really seems to put people at ease to where they feel safer . . . and they'll open up to me, too. And that gets the rapport started pretty early in the relationship, so I can help them in a clinic."

The kind of abuse Brannaman went through as a child can easily be repeated - a pattern that goes from generation to generation, from one victim turned adult and parent to the next. But Brannaman clearly went the opposite way - you see him with his daughter in Buck, and you see him working with the horses. There is no violence there, physical or psychological.

"Probably at about 13 or 14, when I had been with my foster parents for a short time, it just sort of dawned on me that a lot of folks were inclined to feel sympathy for us boys and what we'd been through," Brannaman says. "But most people's expectations were that we probably wouldn't turn out to amount to much. . . .

"And I think the reason I realized that at such a young age is, you know, if your childhood is taken from you like mine was, then the only thing left is to start thinking like an adult. So I did start to process things more like an adult, and I realized that I had the opportunity to prove everybody wrong. . . .

"Someone might take their childhood from you, but they can't take your free will, your ability to make a decision. And no matter what's happened to someone in their life, you always know right from wrong."

Brannaman, 49, expects to be back on the road - literally, behind the wheel, pulling his trailer - by mid-July. Four days a week, he's teaching clinics. The other three, he's going from one place to the next.

"There's a lot of time that I'm on the road that I'm by myself," he says. "I'm kind of in solitude, so I go to quite a few movies."

His favorites over the years?

"My tastes range from - well, probably these three movies describe my personality the best," he says. "That would be: A Fish Called Wanda, Tombstone, and The Big Lebowski."

The Coen Brothers' stoner take on Raymond Chandler, with Jeff Bridges as the Dude?

"I know," he says, chuckling, "not what you'd expect.

"It's one of those films where you either really like it and it just really makes you laugh, or you don't at all. A couple of my friends, I would tell them, 'You've got to watch this, this is just the funniest damn movie you ever saw!' And then they come back and look at me like I need to be put in an institution."

Short subjects. Kevin Bacon (see the "In the Know" interview on Page A2 of today's Inquirer) is starting work on Jayne Mansfield's Car, a comedy/drama about the relationship between two families, one American, the other British, in Texas in the '60s, during the tumult of the civil rights movement. "It's written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton," reports Bacon. "It's a really good script, and Billy Bob and myself and Robert Patrick are brothers. Robert Duvall's our daddy." John Hurt, Frances O'Connor, and Ray Stevenson also star. . . . Danny Boyle, who helmed Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, is squeezing in a new one before he sets to work directing the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. It's a thriller called Trance, adapted from a British TV movie about an auction-house employee who colludes with crooks to steal a valuable painting, but then suffers amnesia from a blow to the head and can't remember where he's hidden the artwork. Variety reports that Boyle wants James McAvoy for the lead.

Save the date. It's set: Philadelphia Film Festival 20 will begin, suitably enough, on Thursday, Oct. 20, and run through Nov. 3. The event, which began as the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema in 1982, is aiming for something like 230 films during its 15-day (and -night) 2011 run. Michael Lerman is back as artistic director. For updates and info between now and the fall: www.filmadelphia.org

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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