One of the central questions in Places in the Heart is whether Edna, played by Sally Fields, will, against the odds, manage to get her cotton crop in before anyone else in the county, thus securing herself a $100 prize which she desperately needs. Robert Benton, the writer/director of Places in the Heart, has managed to win a similar race of his own: the great Country Movie Sprint. His film has narrowly beaten Country (with Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard) and The River (with Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson) into the marketplace. His award, worth rather more than $100, is first crack at a movie audience which may quickly grow tired of stories dealing with country matters, plus first pass through the critics, before they start viewing this kind of film as old hat. (As a side note, I recently went to a theater which showed the trailer for Country immediately after the trailer for The River. The similarities cracked the audience up, as the first few moments of the trailers were very much the same.)
If the other films in this emerging mini-genre share Places in the Heart's strong and weak points, the last of these films to appear may receive scant welcome. Compared with most other American films this year, Places in the Heart looks very good. Benton directs with an air of assurance and confidence in his material that allows him to disappear into the film, something which at least one school of directing strives for. The performances are uniformly excellent; Sally Field is likely to receive another Acadamy Award nomination for Best Actress. (There may be hope for actresses like Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Summers yet. I can remember when Sally Field was best known for her tender portrayals of Gidget and the Flying Nun.) Several of the members of the supporting cast are also likely to garner awards. Nestor Almendros contributes his typically lovely cinematography. Unfortu- nately, Benton the screenwriter has not given good enough material to Benton the director.
Places in the Heart is composed of a series of vignettes in the life of Edna, a mother and wife in a rural Texas town during the 1930s. Early in the film, her husband, the town sheriff, is accidentally killed by a drunken black boy. She discovers that she is in imminent peril of losing her land to the bank which holds the mortgage. With no salable skills and no experience except as housewife, she must provide for her two young children and somehow find a way to make enough money to pay the next installment on the mortgage. This is a perfectly good story, but Benton's screenplay dips and darts around this central issue, focussing on events which are interesting in and of themselves, but are never integrated into the story. Edna's brother-in- law is having an affair with another woman. What does this have to do with Edna's struggle? Well, nothing really. A tornado hits town. Is it going to destroy the family's cotton crop, or damage their house, or will someone get hurt? No, they'll just have to pick up a bunch of rubbish from the front yard. Edna's 9-year-old son asks her to dance at a party. Is this indicative of the healing of a rift between them, or familial solidarity against a hostile community? No, it's just the sort of charming incident that mothers tend to tell each other about.
Telling a story is not absolutely necessary. Good films have been made before which tried to provide a sense of place and time, or to evoke certain emotions, or to deal with important issues, without revolving around a story. Benton's film, though, is constructed as if it were telling a story; the way these irrelevant scenes are put together suggests that they are part of that story, and yet they are not. All of this might still have worked if it were presented as a memory film, through the eyes of one of the children, but the film is constructed as a straight narrative, which form does not lend itself to digressions.
This lack of focus is not a fatal weakness. There is a lot to admire about Places in the Heart. Every scene is, internally, well written, directed,and photographed. The period detail is nicely rendered. (The next time I see a Hollywood film set in the thirties or fourties in which the men have long hair, I think I'll scream. Quietly, of course, so I don't disturb the other patrons. Places in the Heart avoids that pitfall, at least.) As mentioned, the acting is very good, particularly John Malkovich as a blind boarder Edna is pressured into accepting, and Danny Glover as Moses, a black drifter who provides the needed experience to make the cotton crop possible. Ed Harris is strong as the unfaithful but repentant brother-in- law, but his part is irrelevant, in the overall scheme of things. His character looks like part of another movie.
I recommend Places in the Heart to those who are not especially offended by sentimental films. It's a good film, but not a great film. If Robert Benton had a better notion of what he really wanted to say, it could have more closely approached the quality of The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, two films which obviously influenced Benton, or at least reflected the same sensibilities. I can't really fault a director too much for producing a good film instead of a classic, but I do feel a little disappointed.
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