As a posthumous tribute to man who died too young and by his own hand, Hanna Ranch is unsurprisingly suffused with melancholy. Yet this documentary about the late Colorado cattleman Kirk Hanna—who came to national prominence after showing up in Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation but was first and foremost a figure of change in his own community—honors its subject’s life and accomplishments without drenching things in sentiment. There’s some good-natured joking at the beginning about Kirk’s larger-than-life persona (“Did you know he was 9 feet tall?” kids one interviewee), but for the most part, Mitch Dickman’s documentary sticks to the facts and gets inside the contradiction of Hanna’s status as an “eco-cowboy,” an old-school cowpoke who embraced newfangled thinking about farming techniques.
Hanna committed suicide in 1998, leaving behind a wife, children, and a ranch he’d protected against rapacious land developers for the better part of a decade. Hanna Ranch offers hints about the primal source of the depression that plagued him throughout his life; his father and sister died in a car accident when he was very young, and his mother married another, neighboring rancher, in a difficult union of lives and acreages that ultimately drove a wedge between Kirk and his brother Steve. The splintering of the Hanna clan is recounted via interviews with family members, and Dickman does a fine job of keeping the various characters’ relationships and grievances straight.
Hanna Ranch develops from a personal to a political narrative when it covers the period in which Kirk returned home after a stint working in big business in Denver to run the ranch according to his own ideas, which included curtailing free-range grazing and employing goats to eat weeds in lieu of chemical treatments. The contrast between Kirk’s 10-gallon swagger (an oft-cited point of comparison is Tom Selleck) and his distinctly hippie-ish views on conservation—which extended to a distaste for urban sprawl—is fascinating, and Dickman shows us just how quickly he went from prodigal to favorite son, while making a few enemies along the way.
Hanna Ranch is conventionally made, which in this case is a virtue: Dickman is a smart enough filmmaker to stay out of the way of his own story. And when the film does wax a little lyrical, as in a dusty overture of Western landscapes, it’s to visualize the rugged ideals Hanna clung to despite suspicions about their sustainability. One of the reasons modern-cowboy personas are so seductive is that they are, at their core, an anachronism, a bygone way of life trying to thrive in the present tense. What’s affecting about Hanna Ranch is its suggestion that Kirk Hanna was the real deal in every way possible, a man out of time, simultaneously inspired and fatally trapped by his past.