Buck (Review)

The original 'horse whisperer' teaches us to appreciate animals and life


n the preface to the 1975 edition of Animal Liberation, ethics philosopher Peter Singer shared the story of an evening dinner party where the hostess was a keen lover of animals and quite interested in discussing his take on the treatment of animals. She had a dog and two cats that got on well together and had a guest at the party who ran a pet hospital. The hostess was surprised to hear that Singer and his wife had no pets of their own. “But you are interested in animals, aren’t you, Mr. Singer?”

Singer explained that he and his wife “were interested in the prevention of suffering and misery; that (they) were opposed to arbitrary discrimination; that (they) thought it wrong to inflict needless suffering on another living being, even if that being was not a member of (their) own species; and that (they) believed animals were ruthlessly and cruelly exploited by humans, and that (they) wanted this changed. Otherwise, (they) were not especially ‘interested’ in animals.”

The philosopher went further, when describing Animal Liberation. The book was not about pets. It was a call for the ethical treatment of animals; an argument equating, within well-defined limits, animal rights with human civil rights.

I came across the preface to Animal Liberation in Writings on an Ethical Life, a 2001 paperback collection of essays from Singer, which drew from that 1975 book and his more recent efforts to clearly and succinctly outline the evolving philosophical framework for his position. The argument, if carefully followed to fruition, would lead adherents to reconsider the role of animal products in their lives.

But from the relatively isolated standpoint of the treatment of animals, possibly the most fully realized expression of Singer’s approach can be found in Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary Buck. Brannaman has been branded a horse whisperer, based on his ability to work with horses without resorting to the traditional means of “breaking” the animals. He calls his technique “starting.” For lack of a better, more marketable term, that indeed sums up what he teaches. Brannaman helps owners “start” to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship with their horses that is rooted in trust and respect and the awareness of the largely unspoken bond between the two living beings that must exist.

Brannaman travels 40 weeks a year across the United States. He is more of a counselor or psychologist rather than a “whisperer,” and his real subjects are the people paying for these sessions, not the horses. The film captures Brannaman in a series of sessions, preaching and embodying his mannered Southern philosophy. He is a modern-day cowboy, complete with the 10-gallon hat, the boots and the chaps, and again this almost New Age take on training humans and animals to work together.

The film hints at Brannaman’s dark past, the inspiration for his code, and when it is revealed that Brannaman and his brother were abused by their father after their mother’s death, everything comes full circle.

Yet Meehl, thanks to Brannaman himself, never wallows in the obvious sentimentality, self-pity and “reality-based” sensationalism. Yes, we see and hear from the sheriff who rescued the Brannaman boys and the foster parents who raised them and remain a vital part of their lives. And the film documents the loving relationship Brannaman has with his own wife and children (one of his daughters travels with him during the summer and proves to be quite skilled with horses and trick roping).

Everyone who works with him knows his story and appreciates how it makes him the perfect trainer, but, more importantly, they (and we) understand that it has started him on the path to being a better human being. He doesn’t see the horses as pets or beasts of burden; they are living creatures worthy of certain inalienable rights and respect. It should be noted, though, that there are moments, real moments, which will call into question his approach as part of more complex dynamic. How do you stand before ethical and personal challenges where the well-being and fate of another living creature are at stake?

Buck is about overcoming fear and pain, breaking free of a cycle of suffering. It offers an example of a man who figured out how to start over and helps others to do the same. Buck is for those who have an “interest” in living an ethical life. Grade: A

Opens July 1. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.
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