MOVIE: Heartland (1980)

The other day at Scarecrow Video (my favorite local video rental shop), I found myself pressed for time and needed to find a second movie to rent fast (it was two-for-one day and what idiot only rents one on two-for-one day?).  So, you know what I did?  I went up to the Independent Drama section, closed my eyes, reached out, and picked a box off the shelf at random.  This is the movie I ended up with, and, I’ll confess, I almost put it back when I flipped it over to read the description.  I mean, really, how many times have I seen this EXACT movie?  A million times.  A million, at least.  The box described it as a film about a widow who takes her daughter to Wyoming in 1910 to work for an unmarried rancher who needs a housekeeper, and if you can’t predict exactly where this is headed, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Thing is, even though everything I expected to take place in this film did, in fact, take place in this film, I still ended up loving it.  For one thing, I have always adored Conchata Ferrell, though I confess I never knew that was her name until today.  Remember her as the pizza parlor owner in Mystic Pizza?  Or how about as the boisterous nurse in that 80’s sitcom with George Clooney, E/R?  Always loved her, and man, does she ever carry this whole movie on her shoulders too.  Ferrell plays Elinore Randall, a middle-aged widow with a 7 year-old daughter  who finds herself forced to move from Denver to Wyoming when she loses her job and needs another one.  Rancher Clyde Stewart (Rip Torn) pays her way, under the contract she’ll stay a full year, and their first encounter is when she gets off the train after a long, long journey and he hands her a shopping list and walks off.  Friendly, that guy.

At first, the relationship between Randall and Stewart is an awkward one.  He’s not much of a talker, she’s pretty no-nonsense, and, man, can you imagine having to live that closely with someone you don’t even know?  It’s a two-room ranch house — it’s close quarters.  But as time passes, Randall and Stewart begin to slip comfortably into a routine.  It’s not love at first sight, but it’s functional.  It works.  It’ll do.

Only Randall’s not one to sit still anywhere in life, and the more of Wyoming she sees, the more she begins to love the land and long for her own place, having “worked for others all [her] life.”  When she puts a claim down on the land abutting Stewart’s ranch, he sits her down and gives her the straight talk about how hard it is to make it alone as a rancher in Wyoming, especially in the winters, which are long and brutal.  The conversation ends with a dose of practicality — why don’t we just get married?

So, they do.  And then they have a son.  And then their son dies during their first hard, hard winter together, and so does a lot of their cattle, taken by snow, taken by starvation, taken by disease.  But when spring rolls around and their grief begins to settle, Randall and Stewart emerge as a strong, loving unit, and life goes forward.  Life goes well.  Life has hope and companionship and peace at last.  It’s hard, that life.  But now — now — it can be done.

So yes, you see?  It’s just like every other movie you’ve ever seen about this — hardscrabble people in a hardscrabble land coming together to make things just a little less hardscrabble.  But this one is filmed well, written well, acted well, and features a lady who has, hands down, the greatest laugh in the history of laughs (oh, Conchatta, I love you, keep laughing, never stop).

Definitely recommended, and hey, you know what?  I think I’ll do that blind-selection thing again this Wednesday at Scarecrow too.  So far, so good.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Western
Cast:  Rip Torn, Conchata Ferrell, Lilia Skala, Barry Primus


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