In sheer terms of 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 (really well-played by Jay Patterson), and makes it all seem like 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 the kind of female ferocity that's only mimicked in fantasies like Aliens. John Malkovich makes 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, there's clearly no more room for infidelity here than in that other Texas story, , and the whole situation is handled with the utmost delicacy by all involved. An involuntary hand-gesture during a cardgame 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 some sentimental notion of the kind that writers still inject into 'downtrodden but noble' black characters. His attraction to his feisty employer and final dedication to her crusade to keep her family together comes 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 things can't go on as they 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 how it wraps up its story. Edna's triumph over forclosure 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; the most accurate picture of Waxahachie in the movie is probably the sight of schoolteacher Amy Madigan and husband leaving town for the big city. (spoiler - caution) The real climax of the picture is 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 the local Klan isn't going to take lightly her association with Moze even after he's gone. If Benton wanted to end the film there, he could have done so, and the result would have been really bleak and really honest.
(now a total spoiler)
Instead Benton gives us not a lame feel-good ending, but an almost mystical one, that wraps the film up in the warmth of its character's faith and hopes. He uses the church rite of communion to express the communal spirit that he must remember as the soul of the Waxahachie that the dust bowl wiped out. Emotions that are inexpressable find expression, the unfaithful can be forgiven, the homeless can find a home, and the exiled can return. Even the 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 more keen Christian sensibility than my own to see that Benton's Places in the Heart is bookended by communion scenes. In the opening confrontation, Sheriff Spalding's pockets are stuffed full of purloined biscuits 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 forgiving faith.
Columbia TriStar's Places in the Heart is yet another of their exemplary discs, which 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,
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.