It’s easy to see why a lot of people love Buck, but I found it a pretty tepid and shallow film. It’s very “red state”—what with all the tough-talking cowboys—and I’m guessing the films fans are responding to the way the film contrasts this with the emotional confessions interspersed throughout the film. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t ask any penetrating questions of their subject, which kept me at a distance. So I’m supposed to just care on the merits of his struggle alone? Sorry, that wasn’t enough for me. With so many great non-fiction films out there, there’s no compelling reason for me to recommend this one.

Buck Brannaman, our eponymous lead character, travels the country breaking in horses for a living. In fact, he’s one of the inspirations for Robert Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer, and Buck served as a creative advisor on the film. We see Buck as he tames some truly wild beasts all across America, but perhaps his toughest struggle was to overcome the abuse he received at the hands of his father. Buck and his brother were forced into foster care, but with just a little encouragement, he managed to become one of the most skilled horsemen in the world, as well as a good husband and father.

Director Cindy Meehl really does her subject a disservice. By basically giving us the Cliffs Notes version of Buck’s childhood, she misses out on a real opportunity to create a three-dimensional character that we’re actually interested in—rather than the one here that we watch somewhat obligatorily. I don’t want to say that she fails to penetrate Buck’s hardened exterior; I think it’s quite clear that she does. But her questioning (which, to be fair, we don’t see at all) feels like a paper cut: It does the absolute minimum to get Buck to bleed. Had she picked up a hacksaw and really went at him, the result could have been much different.

As a result of this half-hearted character development, it’s hard to care much about his horse whispering. The final 30 minutes especially (during which Buck tries to calm a particularly wild horse) feel like a whole lot of wheel spinning. The film does feature some nice moments. I especially liked Buck’s foster mother and found their relationship touching. But Meehl and company do too many things wrong. Buck comes and goes without leaving any real impact, and though it might earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, I don’t see how anyone can call it one of the five best docs of the year.

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