"Heartland" is good for you, like a walloping dose of castor oil in spring. It's a purgative for urban plight, for those who don't want to mulch the tulip bulbs or change the oil filter. Shooting pigs and slitting their little pink throats, that sort of thing: bringing home the bacon the hard way, the American way. This movie gets back to basics, way beyond sturdy hiking boots and herbal teas to do-it-yourself castration and breech- birthing baby bullocks. "Heartland" reaches for the roots, taking us back to 1910 Wyoming where the blizzards bite down hard and babies born past September seldom see the creeks melt. It's a simple story, desolate of dialogue and told against a vast, treeless terrain. "Heartland" draws on the diary entries of Elinore Randall, a widow who, with her seven-year-old daughter Jerrine, travels to a Burntfork ranch to work as a cook and housekeeper for a sour Scot called Clyde Stewart. Conchata Ferrell brings to life, with wistfulness and earthy maternalism, the stout- spirited, full-figured Widow Randall. Ferrell gives us everything she's got, pushing for more, without pretentiousness, just as she pushes out her own newborn son in the winter of the film. Ferrell's a lot of woman, maybe too heavy-duty for her own sake. But then the film smacks of serious feminism, robbing the sturdy prairie persons of a sense of humor, which surely they must have needed to make it through a night of oiling saddles and sewing socks. As to the menfolk, Rip Torn as Clyde Stewart is magnificent, as barren of mood as the frozen fields, as cold as the cattle, half of which starve that first winter. Stewart is a silent man in a silent season, who thaws when he and Randall marry. Theirs is a marriage not of convenience, but necessity: a hardy love story, resulting in a warm bed, shared grief and survival, by the cusp. Much of the grassroots couple's experience has become country clich,e, though austere direction prevents "Heartland" from tumbling into a sod "Little House on the Prairie." No yippee yah yeh, just rugged individualism. These rough fellows were a sensible lot, not like marquee cowboys chasing fancy skirts. They were men who made room for women who could heat up the coffee and put some starch in their longjohns. A moldable child was even more welcome among them. Jerrine Randall -- played tabula rasa by Megan Folsom -- shyly mirrors the frontier's harsh existentialism. At a branding, Jerrine does not look away, as the cattle scream and squirm. Instead she gives her heart to the cowhand who does the cruel work, Jack (Barry Primus), who mutely supports the marginally subsistent Stewart family, leaving without his wages when he knows they have no money to pay. The little girl shares the things a country girl shares with her mother, bringing wild flowers, bearing up under the braiding of her hair, but her heart belongs to the weathered men of Wyoming, who teach her the skills needed for her new life. Images of endurance wrest the screen from the players, tiny figures, lonely in a wagon or horseback, singing hymns to scare off the shadows. Birth, death, infinity. It's all here, in great dollops with damn little sugar to wash it down. Renewal of spirit for the Stewarts comes when the hardy couple reach into a heifer, to the armpits, to deliver a new generation, the hope of the homestead's future. "Heartfelt," all ruminative inaction, is the antithesis of high-tech filmmaking, a homespun diversion.
HEARTLAND -- At the AMC Academy, Jenifer, NTI Tysons Center, Springfield Mall and Wheaton Plaza.