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November 16, 2015

Movie Review: Places in the Heart (1984)

Directed by Robert Benton

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Edna Spalding (Sally Field, in her second Oscar win for Best Actress) is a Depression-era mother of two small children who suffers an incredible tragedy. Her sheriff husband is killed by accident in a drunken altercation with a black teenager. Justice in small town Texas in 1935 being what it is, the kid is dragged behind a truck as her husband’s body is laid out on the kitchen table prior to burial. Unable to write a check, let alone earn a living, the town’s slimy banker (Lane Smith) reminds Edna she has less than $200 saved and suggests she sell her farm, move in with relatives or put her kids in an orphanage. Edna balks at this, and sticks to her guns.

Opportunity literally comes knocking in the form of black hobo Moze (Danny Glover), who pesters her for work in exchange for a hot meal. Stealing some spoons off her table before high tailing it, a sheriff catches him, drags him before Edna and in an amazing act of compassion, she denies the charges, which sets him free. Moze proves to be a Godsend, as he has a hands-on experience in cotton farming, just the thing to turn around the unused land on her property to keep her creditors at bay.

Another important facet of the film’s story is introduced when Mr. Will (John Malkovich), the banker’s brother, blinded in World War I is taken in by Edna as a boarder. Malkovich’s performance is extraordinary, going from an embittered recluse to an active, vital part of the household. Will rises to the fore in the film’s major set piece as a tornado batters the town. Everyone here, without question, pulls his or her own weight.

Places in the Heart is one of the greatest U.S. motion pictures of the 1980s. The story could have easily sipped into sentimentality, with soaring strings on the soundtrack, but much like the film’s characters, Places in the Heart is hardnosed – yet compassionate. Based on director and screenwriter Robert Benton’s (who won yet another Oscar for the film for Best Screenplay) own childhood experiences, Places in the Heart presents both the good – and the bad of this place in time, without judgment.

Painted in golden tones by legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendaros, Places in the Heart is a heartwarming experience. The only flaw is an extraneous subplot involving Wayne (Ed Harris), the philandering husband of Edna’s sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse – who won yet another Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in this) with schoolteacher Viola (Amy Madigan). This subplot offers up an element of romance to diffuse the simmering sexual tension between Field, Glover and Malkovich, the latter who asks Field over the course of a romantic evening what she looks like. Madigan and Harris married during the course of production, so somebody personally benefited from this decision!

This Twilight Time release, limited to 3,000 copies features an audio commentary track with actress Sally Field (absent from the screen far too long) and documentary filmmaker Nick Redman. Field has many warm memories of the film’s production, and given her long-held leftist views mentions that tornadoes are much more common today because of global warming! Redman offer his sonorous voice to the commentary, but makes a snafu when he refers to the film’s tornado as a “typhoon.” There is an isolated score track and the film’s theatrical trailer, and don’t forget that remarkable booklet with comments from Julie Kirgo! With an extended closing shot that is just as mysterious as it is wonderful, Places in the Heart deserves a place on your must watch list.   

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