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Originally published Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Movie review

A moving portrait of 'Buck' and his work with troubled horses

A review of "Buck," a witty and deeply moving documentary from first-time director Cindy Meehl. It tells the story of Dan "Buck" Brannaman, inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer" and advocate for universal compassion.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Buck,' a documentary with Dan "Buck" Brannaman, Robert Redford. Directed by Cindy Meehl. Rated PG for thematic elements, mild language and an injury. 88 minutes. Harvard Exit.

For an interview with Brannaman and Meehl, see Page B5.

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Loosely speaking, Dan "Buck" Brannaman is the real-life inspiration for "The Horse Whisperer," the 1995 Nicholas Evans novel and subsequent feature film starring and directed by Robert Redford. But, says a lifelong friend of Brannaman's who appears in the crisply witty and deeply moving new documentary "Buck," no one has ever seen the man actually whisper to a horse.

Watch "Buck," a portrait of Brannaman by first-time director Cindy Meehl, and you'll see he doesn't need such a demigodlike power over equine souls. Brannaman's mission, as we learn watching him work at makeshift clinics and in revealing interviews, is simply to help humans become all the more human by helping frightened, damaged and ill-treated horses feel understood.

Never has the special relationship between people and horses appeared more magnificent and even lyrical on film than in "Buck." Traveling around ranch country to work with owners and their needy animals, Brannaman, a low-key but hardly laconic old hand, encourages intimidated — and intimidating — horses to realize it is possible to trust and work in unison with a human.

Brannaman advises owners and handlers to see things through a distrustful horse's past experiences and cumulative fears, just as one would with a child.

That comparison is crucial to Brannaman, it turns out. After observing him a little in "Buck," somehow it comes as no surprise that, despite his kind and positive manner, his passion for healing is rooted in a nightmarish childhood.

The story of Brannaman's (and his older brother's) misery under the lash of a drunken, crazy father proves unsettling. It also explains the haunted look in his eyes and anger in his voice when he speaks of horses that become lost causes due to an owner's personal problems.

Meehl's access to Brannaman's friends, wife and adolescent daughter rounds out his story nicely. Redford turns up in a couple of illuminating exchanges, explaining how Brannaman quickly rose from adviser to chief wrangler on the set of "The Horse Whisperer," and even influenced the actor's performance.

Above all, "Buck" introduces a distinctly American presence with a 21st-century spin in Brannaman. We may or may not see this plain- spoken, mildly sardonic yet compassionate cowboy on film again. But it's nice to know he's out there.

Tom Keogh:

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