Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Places in the Heart is a great picture that didn't receive anywhere near the attention it
deserved back in 1984. Sally Field had already reached kitsch heaven with her Oscar acceptance
gush for Norma Rae, a spectacle that didn't add to her star power. She's even better in
this film, which impresses because it's a real writer-director's picture in a decade when
Hollywood forgot how to tell stories or make us care about characters.
When her Sheriff Husband Royce (Ray Baker) is suddenly killed, new widow Edna Spalding
(Sally Field) determines not lose her farm, despite the depression and hostility to her sex from
her banker. She takes in a blind boarder with a negative attitude (John Malkovich). With help from
her sister Margaret Lomax (Lindsay Crouse) and homeless sharecropper Moze (Danny Glover),
Edna faces up to everything Southern society and nature can throw at her.
In terms of sheer quality, Places in the Heart harks back to Elia Kazan's amazing
Wild River and captures a living & breathing feeling of rural Texas during the depression. 1
Waxahachie is where Benton was born, and this must be his valentine to it; Places in the Heart
has the kind of detail that made Benton a hot property with his Bonnie & Clyde screenplay twenty
years before. The costumes, settings, and lighting have a genuine touch, and best of all, Benton's
assured and delicate direction (Kramer vs. Kramer)
creates the kind of intimacy where the slightest facial expression can evoke a life changing
before our eyes.
Benton also attacks the social-problem end of his story with great assurance. Arthur Penn in The Chase
slandered the South as a cesspool of violence and racial evil, and soon the only Southerners in
liberal movies were bad Southerners. Places in the Heart pits defenseless female Edna Spalding
against a contemptuous bank manager and a redneck Cotton Gin operator (well-played
by Jay Patterson), and makes it a personal experience rather than a blanket indictment
of the South.
The acting on view is breathtaking. Sally Field is better than ever, and her fight to save her
family has a female ferocity that's only mimicked in fantasies like Aliens. John Malkovich
crafts a vivid
portrait of a man who has pride even when he's shamefully foisted on a landlord who doesn't want him.
The kids are as perfectly handled as in Kramer. And Benton throws in a handful of side
relationships that are as strong as the leads. Wastrel Ed Harris cheats on his wife Lindsay Crouse
(a really great performance) with schoolteacher Amy Madigan. Nobody's doing well in Waxahachie,
and there's clearly no more room for infidelity here than in that other Texas story, The Searchers,
and the whole situation is handled with the utmost delicacy by all involved. An involuntary hand-gesture
during a card game is all that's required to spill the beans. The repair of Harris and Crouse's
relationship is barely sketched, but deeply felt just the same.
Places in the Heart handles its racial theme well. Danny Glover's Moze (a Searchers
reference?) acts out of self-preservation, rather than a sentimental notion of the kind which
writers still inject into 'downtrodden
but noble' black characters. His attraction to his feisty employer and his final dedication to her
crusade to keep her family together come from the same reasons we all commit ourselves to help
each other - good people bring out the best in each other. The most treacherous scene in this kind
of film is the 'facing up to the Klan' cliche, which Benton & co. handle perfectly. The day is saved,
sort of, but life can't go on as it did before ... beautiful things happened on the Spalding farm, but
there's no utopian future there either.
The most remarkable thing about Places in the Heart is the conclusion. Edna's
triumph over foreclosure and the Cotton Gin would ring hollow if the show ended with a happy
future assured for the Spalding farm and its improvised family. The depression just
didn't work out like that - these were the years of the Okie migration and the film's most accurate picture
of Waxahachie is probably the sight of schoolteacher Amy Madigan and her husband leaving
town for the big city. (spoiler - caution) The real climax of the picture comes when a beaten and bloody
Moze walks off into the blackest of nights, like Paul Muni in
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The day may have been saved, but what will come next year,
without Moze to bring the cotton in? Edna's con-job on the Cotton Gin guy isn't going work twice,
and even after Moze is gone, the local Klan isn't going to take the issue lightly.
If Benton wanted to end the film there, he could have done so, and the result would have been honest,
bleak and depressing.
(now a total spoiler)
Benton opts for a note of uplift, not a lame feel-good ending, but an almost mystical one that wraps up
the film in the warmth of its characters' faith and hopes. He uses the church rite of communion to express
the communal soul of the old Waxahachie, the one wiped out by the dust bowl.
Inexpressible emotions find expression, the unfaithful can be forgiven, the homeless can find
a home, and the exiled can return. Murderer and victim can sit side by side and share bread
and wine, with sins and
tragedies forgiven. It's the best, most cinematic vision of Christian mysticism Savant's seen and it
has a powerful emotional impact.
But it took a Christian sensibility keener than my own to see that Benton's Places in the
Heart is book-ended by communion scenes. In the opening confrontation, Sheriff Spalding's
pockets are stuffed full of biscuits purloined from his dinner table. The luckless Wylie (De'voreaux
White) swings a bottle of wine in one hand. Their fates are held together in the embrace of a
Columbia TriStar's Places in the Heart is yet another of their exemplary discs that can almost
be taken for granted. The muted colors of Néstor Almendros' radiant photography are
well represented. There are some production notes but the only real extra is a trailer, and all those
international subtitle choices Columbia TriStar always includes. A flat version is encoded on the flip side
for those who need it, but the 16:9 widescreen version is preferable by far.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Places in the Heart rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 8, 2001
1. The hymn used for the uplifting end of Places in the Heart
is the same plaintive tune sung by Lee Remick in Wild River. That 1960 movie is still
a remarkably evocative portrait of rural Americana, especially considering that it was made by an
Armenian/Greek immigrant from New York.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson