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Places in the Heart
Let me start with a disclaimer. Much like fellow DVD Talk writer Francis Rizzo III, who prefaces all of his reviews with his personal biases, I feel like I need to provide a little context so you can calibrate your understanding of this review accordingly.
Here goes: I don't really get Robert Benton as a director. As a writer, this triple Oscar winner has contributed to the scripts of a lot of movies I love, from the neo-screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? to the offbeat thriller The Ice Harvest. There's an intensity that's magnetic in a lot of the material he has generated, but when he steps behind the camera for something like The Late Show or 1998's Twilight, he tends to show a restraint bordering on detachment. It's not bland exactly, but it's too gentle for my taste. (I haven't seen Kramer vs. Kramer, Benton's best-known directorial effort, so I can't comment on whether this observation applies there as well.)
That restraint -- or maybe "tastefulness" is a better word -- is the major thing keeping me from loving Benton's newly reissued 1984 drama Places in the Heart. Benton has assembled a uniformly outstanding cast, headed by Sally Field at the top of her game, but also including Danny Glover, John Malkovich, Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan. It's a pure joy to watch these people at work, but it's hard not to feel like they're all working in service of a story that pulls punches and doesn't explore its themes as thoroughly as it could.
Field plays Edna Spalding, a mother of two in small-town Depression-era Texas who must figure out how to keep her family and farm afloat after her sheriff husband is accidentally killed. Glover plays a vagabond named Moses who just happens to have the know-how to get a good cotton crop going on her farm's thirty acres. Edna also takes in a boarder, called Mr. Will (Malkovich), who was blinded in the war. There is slight friction between these characters when they are first thrown together, but a series of circumstances -- a tornado, a sudden drop in the price of cotton, followed by a competition for a cash prize to bring in the town's first bale of cotton -- successfully bonds everyone together for a common goal.
On the audio commentary included on this disc, Sally Field says that the film originally consisted of three stories weaving in and out but, during editing, her character's story became the primary focus of the finished film and the others were cut down. One of the stories -- about Bert Remsen as an old singer in love with a young woman -- is pretty much entirely gone. The other story, which remains, involves Edna's sister Margaret (Crouse) and the affair her husband Wayne (Harris) has with another married woman (Madigan). (Lost's Terry O'Quinn makes a few brief appearances -- and still makes a solid impression -- as Madigan's husband.) Crouse, Harris, and Madigan act the heck out of their scenes, but this subplot can't help but feel like a distraction from the life-or-death struggle going on with Edna. One wishes that Benton had the foresight to realize that Edna's story was going to be the meat of the film, so that he could have let the other stories completely fall away and kept his subplots focused on that farmhouse. Whenever we get to see little character moments during this story -- such as when Moses shows Edna's son a mini-ritual to undo bad luck or Mr. Will and Moses just sit around talking -- it whets the appetite for more of that.
I'm not sure what exactly to say about the film's portrayal of racism, except that it is understated and tasteful like everything else. A young black man, Wiley (Devoreaux White), is unintentionally responsible for the death of Edna's husband and he gets lynched for it, dragged behind a car. The film does not shy away from showing us what the townsfolk did, but the staging is emotionally muted and focuses on the aftermath rather than the act. We see Wiley's family recover his body after it is strung up from a tree, but they are kept in wide shot, looking somber. Their suffering is kept at a distance.
There's nothing specifically wrong with this approach -- it's just Benton's choice -- but it oddly flies in the face of the film's famous magical realism ending that intends to illustrate the transcendent brotherhood of man. I mean, can't at least one other black character besides Wiley and Moses have a speaking part? Even setting aside the mourning of Wiley's family, can't we get a moment in which the hired hands who are helping to pick Edna's bale talk to each other? Maybe such a conversation is beyond the scope of this story, but again, it would be a subplot I would have been more interested to explore than the infidelity story Benton settled upon.
My incompatibility with some of Benton's creative decisions aside, I still have to recommend Places in the Heart. Its scenes are smartly written (one of Benton's Oscars is for this script), beautifully acted (a bunch of the cast was nominated for Oscars and Field won for Best Actress), and memorably photographed by Nestor Almendros.
Places in the Heart is available on Blu-ray in a limited edition of 3000 copies. The disc is packaged with a color (well, sepia-toned) booklet featuring an essay by Twilight Time's Julie Kirgo.
Sony has once again supplied Twilight Time with an excellent 4K restoration. The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is sharp, clean, and clear. Color is perfectly saturated, considering the film's sedate color palette.
The DTS-HA MA mono audio is in great shape. Not a flashy mix, but everything sounds good and is discernible. The disc offers one subtitle option: English SDH.
- Overall, Field and Redman have an entertaining chat. Field says she hasn't seen the film in full in decades, but she offers a number of interesting anecdotes about the production and the lead-up to shooting (she broke her kneecap during a trip to Africa and was in a plaster cast mere days before shooting began). Not a lot of dead spots, although Field gets oddly focused on her bleached, frizzy hair. Redman also confuses clearly lip-synching fake bandleader Bert Remsen with real-life bandleader Cliff Bruner, who just appears as a guitar player in the film (what, has Redman never seen Thieves Like Us!?). It's a worthwhile listen nonetheless.
Places in the Heart is a film I want to love, but I just like it. Director Robert Benton has great taste in actors, and he clearly knows how to let wonderful performances flow out of them. The rest of his approach, however, is a bit too detached to make this film the resonant dramatic powerhouse it often promises to become. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, Don't Depend on Me, is now available to stream or download on Bandcamp, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.