The film is about a real "horse whisperer" named Buck Brannaman (he apparently served as an assistant to the movie "The Horse Whisperer", although I do not think the novel was based on him). He comes from a line of horse trainers that have adopted an essentially nonviolent, empathetic approach to their art, in which no longer need a horse be broken. But the film is mainly about this guy and his life, or rather, his childhood suffering from paternal physical abuse, how he escaped that and how it served as a perfect backdrop for his own work.
In one of the first voiceovers, Buck says something to the effect of, I'm a guy who appears to work with people that have horse problems, but actually with horses that have people problems. The point of this being like the wisdom that Caesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer", demonstrates (although I do not think ever really articulates), which is that the animal's problem is usually the owner.
This kind of thing really interests me because I'm a believer in the wisdom of Aristotle's maxim that the friend is another self, and in the mirroring nature of the master-slave relationship in Hegel, and the notion of transference in psychoanalysis … in general. I am interested in the way that humans find reflected in those around them, and the kinds of things we can learn about ourselves by studying those closest to us. Of course, those ideas may still seem better suited for topics apart from human-animal relations. But I went ahead and made the transition a long time ago and never looked back.
So let me say why I liked it and what it made me think about:
People like Buck make me imagine a different culture, one not dissimilar from the one I thought I grew up in--a rural culture where people worked with animals and lived on farms and had simple lives and were morally uncomplicated. It was an illusion, but one that I still cling to in some respect. When you meet Buck he reaffirms that being morally uncomplicated, that treating others well and treating oneself well, is within your power. He is an image of the culture that is mocked in "Hud" (1963), according to Pauline Kael (more on that in another post).
The relation to animals is really important, I think, because how you treat animals says a lot about the kind of person that you are. For example, one of the reasons I fell for Y was because of her two dogs (and the fucking cat, Nigel, who was a furry bastard). If we cannot feel empathy for those less powerful or even dependent on us, but instead only resentment or irritation if not indifference, what can the rest of the world be for us except an occasion.
Now the case of "Buck" is different, because horses are not less powerful or even necessarily dependent. In fact, they are dangerous creatures, as you see in one brilliant scene in the film where Buck tries and fails to train a horse which has grown up, not mistreated, but indulged. While he directs the rider most of the time, at one point the rider simply goes inside the fence with the animal and after a moment of tension, it attacks him and bites his head. He is okay, although required to go to the hospital for stitches (there was blood), but this incident determines that the animal cannot be saved and must be put down (I do not think this was a legal requirement, but merely the judgment of the owner of what must be done). It is sad, because it is a beautiful horse and it is a horse, being a sentient creature which clearly has regard for its own life and its desires.
This scene is important, particularly as it follows a series of others in which Buck almost effortlessly tames colts that have never before had a rider, and dazzles onlookers who corroborate the viewer's desire for Buck to be amazing. Which he is. But Buck has his limits and this errant horse was one of them. As indicated, the horse reflects the indulgence of the owner who had lovingly raised the horse, nursing it after its mother had passed away during the birthing and then even "potty" training the horse (unclear). The owner had not gelded the horse (I hope that's the right term) and in fact had 18 other studs on her farm. Buck chastises her, gently but firmly, for allowing this, since it is neither in the best interest of the horses or the owner.
The owner reminds me of an ex-girlfriend I had who had three cats (when we were together) and later on, after we separated, acquired many more animals. These adoptions were a gesture of charity, she thought, except that she could not keep some 10 cats and several dogs living together harmoniously (or even in good health) in her house. This kind of charity is an ignorance of her own limits, since she gave up her own needs for those of another. But she could not take care of those animals, and therefore her charity was not what it intended. It was in fact mistreatment. She could not accept that she had limits to her charity, because she could not accept her own limits … because no one had offered her that charity? I was stupid enough to think I was doing that while we were together, but eventually it became plain that was false.
Only a few clips show Buck's wife and sketch that relationship. His traveling horse clinics are the basis of his livelihood, and he is on the road for a large portion of the year running them. It clear that this is the source of much of his happiness. He speaks occasionally about how nice it is to be with his family, yet he stays on the road nonetheless. He says in a voiceover that she does not like to travel. But then shortly later, when the camera is just on her, not necessarily in response to the earlier clip, she says she likes to travel. But she also likes to stay home, and smiles.
Those are the kinds of movements that demonstrate some directional and editing intelligence, showing without thematizing, without telling, you might say. The film moves continually in this manner, introducing topics through unprovoked comments and then supplying a narrative to follow them. This movement is not unlike how, in another scene, Buck describes learning how to direct the horse by pulling the its rope bridle, which even when firmly directly, becomes firm gradually and without a violent, painful pull. Would that other filmmakers understood such discretion. This is what makes this film so beautiful, that it documents the formation of an art and the "wisdom" resulting from it, how that wisdom spills into other practices and other relationships and other objects, transforming all it touches.