So naturalistic that it almost feels like a documentary, Heartland exemplifies a certain speciality of American independent cinema, the rural survival story. Tackling subject matter far too educational in nature for treatment in a Hollywood production, the picture tells the simple tale of a woman who moves to a small ranch in the American frontier, circa 1909, to serve as the live-in housekeeper for the ornery proprietor of a one-man ranching operation. As years pass, the duo’s pragmatic arrangement grows into something like a romantic bond, but their union is tested by challenges including bitter winters, financial problems, livestock deaths, and a troubled pregnancy. All of this plays out in crisp dramatic vignettes set almost exclusively on the ranch, which means that the picture’s visuals are limited to stark panoramic shots of empty fields and claustrophobic interior scenes taking place in the rancher’s cabin.
Accordingly, the picture’s watchability rises and falls on its acting and its attention to detail, and both are excellent. Conchata Ferrell, who later achieved notoriety as the sarcastic housekeeper on the sitcom Two & a Half Men, stars in Heartland, playing one of her only leading roles. Leavening her signature sass with a layer of historically accurate repression, she’s independent and tough without seeming like a superwoman, which makes the grit her character shows in horrific circumstances all the more impressive. Ferrell’s costar is the priceless Rip Torn, giving one of his most restrained performances; although the violence that often punctuates his acting is visible under the skin of his character, Torn comes across as a man toughened by necessity, not personal inclination. Barry Primus appears fleetingly, and with much soft-spoken charm, as a ranch hand occasionally in Torn’s employ.
The script, which reflects meticulous research more strongly than creative dramaturgy, was based on a series of letters written by the real-life frontier woman whose experiences inspired the story, and as such the picture consistently opts for melancholy realism over happy contrivance. Heartland is like a textbook chapter come to life, painstakingly illustrating what a single woman’s lot was like at a particular moment in history. The approach speaks well of the filmmakers’ intentions but makes Heartland feel slow for viewers accustomed to flashier storytelling—as helmed by journeyman director Richard Pearce, the picture gritty and substantial almost to a fault. Ultimately, however, Heartland’s integrity raises it almost above reproach, even though it’s more edifying than entertaining.