Bearing the same bruised poetry of a Larry McMurtry prairie novel, Cindy Meehl's portrait of Dan "Buck" Brannaman, a renowned natural horseman, makes a case for connecting with the outside world beyond the multiplex. (Leave those aliens and robots alone for a while.) Brannaman gives seminars across America about communicating on the equine level; we watch him ease mares into horse carts with what seems like the merest nod. Quickly, it's also learned that our subject, once a child trick-rope star, suffered mightily at the hand of a raging father. The idea of a frightened Montana teen taking solace in the beauty of the range is heartbreaking. It's almost too good to be true---and indeed, has already become a melodrama, The Horse Whisperer, whose title character Brannaman largely inspired. (Robert Redford speaks admiringly here about an unlikely Santa Monica powwow with the real-life cowboy.)
As hypnotic as it is watching these horses dance and kneel to Brannaman's gentle will, the triumph here is actually a human one---that of a confident social-services department that interceded into an abusive home. Meehl elicits moving testimony from Betsy Shirley, the gravel-voiced foster mom who signified a fresh start, and there's a wonderful anecdote concerning a pair of buckskin gloves that speaks volumes about parenting. If you feel the smallest reservation about Buck, it's due to the near absence of Brannaman's older brother, Smokie, who escaped the same circumstances but fled into a career in the Coast Guard. (One suspects the truly brilliant documentary would have been a Crumb-like double profile, set on land and sea.) But this film's effectively wrought communion between once-spooked man and animal is more than enough for any entertainment. It rides easily into your heart.
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