Heartland (Richard Pearce, 1979)
Set in the barren and hostile prairies of 1910 Wyoming, following recently widowed Eleanor Randall (Conchata Ferrell), guiding along her 7 year old daughter Jerrine (Megan Folsom), eager to start a new life as a housekeeper for a man she hasn’t even yet met – namely, Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn), a stingy and frustratingly taciturn cattle rancher — there’s a sense while watching Heartland, with its deliberately understated performances (and I don’t mean that negatively at all – these characters are reflections of survival in a cold and harsh landscape) and its unsentimental cinematic approach (not to be confused with pedantic by any means – on the contrary, the filmmaking is precise, perceptive… and not afraid to occasionally capture some impressive landscape shots along the way) that it’s no surprise to see from its opening credit how this deliberately un-Hollywood film got made… namely, through an arts council grant – in this case, the National Endowment of the Arts (which, considering the endless budgetary attacks it’s faced, I’m quite sure it’s long past the day of funding entire features, even as low budget as this one likely was)… and I’m thankful it did.
As the intriguing portrait enfolded, my viewing compadre Phil began lamenting some of the documentary-like approach to any number of moments in the film; not because the scenes don’t work (hell, they’re completely captivating), but because he was considering the print as a screening potential for a night at his long running (over 25 years and counting) Le Cinéclub/The Film Society program, currently taking place (well, once the 2020 Pandemic lockdown gets over with, that is) at Concordia U… and was now worried that while those young millennials in the audience assuredly love their sizzling bacon in the morning, and a good well-cooked hamburger after a night of partying, at least a few of their modern sensibilities would almost assuredly be ‘outraged’ by actually witnessing the pig slaughtered to feed the family, or the cow skinned after the patriarch Stewart finds it starved to death (with keeping the cattle fed during winter being one of the many trying, seemingly impossible, tasks our two main characters struggle to accomplish)… ironic, considering these images were likely a big part of the very reason the Endowment back in the day thought it a good idea to fund the film — to allow the witnessing of such real-life events on farms as an being of an educational benefit. My my, how times have changed (in other words, what a bunch of wimps today).
Speaking of those scenes, ones just bursting with verisimilitude, wow, it certainly is a startling sight witnessing actors Torn and Ferrell with both of their arms buried elbow-deep up into a female cow’s cooch helping pull out a calf… for real. I’d love to hear an interview with either of these actors talk about if not just the preparation for the film, certainly this scene in particular, but it’s clearly entirely them going through the entire process (while impressively remaining in character) – pulling the calf out, coaxing the goo-slathered four-legged newborn into its first breath, then guiding it to stand up… It’s a startling, one of a kind sequence. I mean, at least Ferrell is supposed to be a first timer, Torn is supposed to be acting like he’s an old hand at taking part in cow births… and, who knows, maybe Torn was as a kid (he was born in Texas) because his Clyde Stewart certainly seems comfortable enough. Like much of the film, it’s matter of fact, yet… joyful. Magical even.
Eventually in the film this little threesome forms a family, with a marriage perhaps not of love, but based on mutual respect, and certainly need (with all of this shown through simple acts, not words). Something deeply admirable eventually shows through with these characters, with their obvious commitment to something greater than to their individual selves.
The filmmaking isn’t sensational, or narratively going for dramatic punch, but – like the characters – it’s sensible, tough and earnest. The actors know exactly where to stand and how to perform their parts. Torn’s Stewart, for instance, reveals himself to have a kind of gentle soul stirring somewhere underneath, but neither he, the director, or the writing every overplays that. The story is more Farrell’s and she stands out even more than Torn, with her females wiles and complexities – and toughness — much more on display, but always with a deep commitment to realism, and never the slightest hint of audience pandering. Long-time 70’s and 80’s character actor Barry Primus shows up as a steady farm hand as well as another familiar vet, Jerry Hardin (Deep Throat from the “X-files”!), as a cattle buyer noticing that Stewart is running into some troubles but either unwilling or unable to help (it’s a struggling time for everyone) and they settle into their parts easily, giving them a genuine sense of being lived in… a statement that fits the entire film, actually.
The single death in the film is beautifully crafted, deliberately captured in a distancing way; it’s the most artfully shot sequence of the film, in fact, with the camera quietly joining the young Jerinne as she cautiously walks through the farm house creeping towards her first, suddenly startling glimpse of human death. It’s a memorable scene in an admirable, naturalistic film; an unsentimental, yet deeply caring evocation of a time and place. It’s a small gem of a film.