Talking Pictures in Review: Buck (revisited)

Thanks to a rainout and perhaps the best World Series game in history, our Talking Pictures presentation of the award-winning documentary Buck found itself scheduled at the same time the Cardinals were capping their amazing run to become world champions. For that reason, we decided to show the game in progress right after the conclusion of the film rather than have the usual post-movie discussion.

Even so, Buck offers a great deal worth discussing. And for those of who saw the film and are interested in thinking a bit more about it, or are looking forward to seeing it in the future (it’s currently available through Netflix), I thought I’d repost something I wrote after initially viewing the film at last year’s True/False Film Fest.

But before I do, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts that have come to mind after watching the film again:

1. In my post below, I mention that Buck’s story reflects a great deal of biblical wisdom. To expand on that general point a bit more: because we live in a God created reality, wisdom involves living in a way that’s consistent with God’s creational design and purposes. Watching Buck interact with horses (and people), one can easily see a great example of exactly that. Buck has great success training horses in part because he has learned how to treat them in a manner that respects their fundamental nature. In this area of life at least, Buck seems to swim with, rather than against, the current of God’s creation.

2. Buck didn’t instantaneously become a great trainer overnight. He learned from very knowledgeable mentors and continues to work hard at refining his craft. This is certainly a model for how we often develop greater proficiency in any area of our lives. And here I would add this includes our own knowledge of and love for Christ, as well as our ability to love and serve others. We grow by grace, but that grace often works itself out through intentional learning and effort.

3. One can’t help but draw a number of parallels between Buck’s horse training and raising children (again, see below). But on my second viewing I was struck how the principles on display in the film really apply in almost any relationship.

With that, here’s what I wrote previously…

The book of Proverbs is well known for crafting vivid vignettes of language from the realities we see in the world around us. For example, Prov. 14:4 reads, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” Or consider 26:21: “As charcoal to hot embers and wood to a fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.”

Of course, the goal of this is stated at the beginning of the book:

1:2 To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3 to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4 to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5 Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
6 to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

As the initial examples indicate, when you read the biblical proverbs, you get the sense that their wisdom is a product of lived experience. In God’s economy, such experiences are a great teacher for those with eyes to see.

It’s against this backdrop that I can’t help but place the opportunity I had this past Friday night to view a screening of the already award-winning documentary Buck. If someone would have told me that a film featuring a quiet cowboy-turned-traveling horse trainer would be the finest True/False Film Fest experience I’ve ever had, well, “skeptical” might be the best face I could have put on my reaction. Horses simply aren’t my thing. But that’s how good the film was.

Sporting rich visual sequences and a smartly-crafted narrative, Buck functions almost as an expanded proverb, or even a collection of proverbial knowledge. In following the life experiences of its namesake, the film consistently exposes the precious veins of wisdom waiting to be mined in the stuff of reality. Here’s a bit of my own digging:

1. The film’s principal subject, Buck Brannaman, obviously trains horses. But one can’t help but see the parallels with raising children—in fact, Buck himself makes this very point. In one notable scene, Buck demonstrates two ways a handler might use a lead rope to guide a horse. Though both resulted in enough pressure to withstand a horse testing its boundaries, one employed a sudden jerk, the other a still purposeful but more deliberate pull on the rope. Yes, he said, the horse does need a firm hand at times. But not every way of employing that hand produces the same results. One creates fear, cowing the horse into obedience. The other yields a horse responsive to even subtle movements from a relaxed grip on the rope.

Talking about it afterward, my wife and I had much the same reaction to the scene. Both of us readily acknowledge the biblical injunction to “train a child in the way he should go.” And yet, Buck’s demonstration left us both reflecting on how best to shepherd and discipline our kids. Are we parenting in a way that produces fear and resentment or responsive, trusting hearts?

2. Related to the previous point, Buck notes that horse problems are often reflective of people problems. In other words, learning about a horse’s issues can often tell him quite a bit about a horse’s owner.

Once again, one doesn’t have to be the brightest penny in the pocket to see the parallel with parent-child relationships. For example, is the occasional defiant outburst from one of our children merely a symptom of a stubborn heart? Or might it sometimes reflect our own intemperate speech, speech that functions much more like a harsh jerk on the rope rather than a pull that is measured yet firm.

3. On a different note, I found myself thinking that the film was an excellent illustration of the biblical perspective of calling. That is, that God uniquely gifts and shapes each person to pursue particular paths in life. He calls some to run homeless shelters, others to run investment banks. Some create with paint and canvas, others with rock and soil, flower and tree. Some cook the food while others serve those who come to eat it. And so on.

I won’t be the first to suggest that a good start toward determining our calling consists of taking stock of that which we’re both excited about and reasonably well equipped to do. It’s obvious that Buck Brannaman is wired to train horses (and people). His life demonstrates not only a passion, but also a great aptitude for the job. The result is a great blessing for many people and animals.

Certainly, God’s good plan sometimes takes us outside of our excitement and skill, but all things being equal, it’s worth asking the question: is there something I’m good at that I really desire to do?

4. Finally, Buck’s life story is a compelling picture of redemption. After living a good portion of his childhood in fear of his biological father, he landed with genuinely caring foster parents. In a moving scene, Buck recounts his reflexive fear being overcome by his foster father’s simple gift of buckskin gloves and the shared job of building fence. All in all, Buck’s life is an encouraging example of how brokenness and evil can be fought against and rolled back, how what is marred can be made beautiful again. In this way, his life points to an even greater redemption and the one whose sacrifice brought it about.

More could be said, but for my money, Buck demonstrates some of the very best documentary filmmaking has to offer. The good news: the film has secured a distribution deal—no sure thing for work of this nature. In the post film discussion, director Cindy Meehl mentioned late June for a release date. Keep your eyes open and, if you get the opportunity, don’t miss the chance to see Buck.

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