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A Horse of a Different Color

Photo by Joe LedererJohn Gatins, the writer and director of Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, likes to graze familiar pastures. Having written the scripts for two loosely fact-based sports melodramas (Hardball and Coach Carter), he makes it three in a row with this tale of a girl and her horse, and the result is a case study in how an unrepentant formula picture can be made to seem like it has nothing to be sorry about. Gatins treats his own clichés with such worshipful obeisance that Dreamer transcends them; it becomes like a vibrant, enveloping dream. The opening images — deep, gray skies thick with billowing storm clouds over infinitely green Kentucky fields — possess an almost supernatural quality, as if Gatins and his gifted cinematographer, Fred Murphy, were showing us the American farm belt not as it really is, but as it exists in our collective mythology. When the movie’s majestic horses round the track, they seem like prehistoric creatures brought back from extinction, and their throbbing neck muscles and galloping hooves in close-up have some of the ecstatic abstraction of Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century motion studies. Gatins is no less iconographic in regard to his characters — proud, hard-working, red-state types like plucky protagonist Cale Crane (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of onetime horse breeder Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) who’s been hit hard by the economics of contemporary farm culture. Now employed as a trainer, Ben has had to sell off his land piece by piece just to stay afloat. (It’s a role that the chronically underrated Russell seems to feel in his bones; his performance is built upon the small, deferential behaviors of a broken-down man.) Cale convinces herself that a badly injured filly her father is nursing back to health can return to champion racing form — the horse is a metaphor for her father — and, by Jove, if she doesn’t will just that to happen! This is as corny as it sounds, and yet not half as cloying and sentimental as you expect. At the end of the day, the horse may win the race, but the fate of the American heartland looms large and unresolved. DREAMER: INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY | Written and directed by JOHN GATINS | Produced by HUNT LOWRY, BRIAN ROBBINS and MICHAEL TOLLIN | Released by DreamWorks | Citywide