Places in the Heart (1984)
by Karl Bowman
The film medium is a latter-day miracle. Some even say it is the most powerful art form. We may be captivated by the bold strokes of a Van Gogh or soothed by the melodies of a Beethoven Sonata, but film juxtaposes sound and visuals unlike any other medium. Take the attributes of tone, tempo and harmony, add dialogue and the sound effects of daily life. Then smash these together with the play of light on the human face or the myriad creations of God in close-up and panorama. To top it off, enjoy the artistry of thespians, the imagination of a writer, and the visions of hundreds of craftspeople under a single director and you have a fascinating, indeed “entertaining”, experience.
But this is not all. Like all art, film can and does affect us on a spiritual level. Besides stirring our emotions and captivating our minds, it is a communicator. The majority of films produced are meant for mass audiences to share. Thus, it is a major player in the war of ideas that began in Heaven long ago. It’s messages can confuse, degrade, and destroy, or clarify, build, and elevate the human spirit. Places in the Heart is a beautiful, praiseworthy film in both form and content.
The setting is the small town of Waxahachie, Texas during the Great Depression. Edna Spaulding (Sally Field) is astonished one evening when her husband, the sheriff, is brought home dead–shot by a drunken Negro boy. After telling her two children of his death, she is forced to shoulder the financial burdens, learn to pay bills, and work in the cotton fields for her family’s support. She meets a wanderer named Moses (Danny Glover) who proves to be a Godsend. He and a blind boarder (John Malkovich) help her plant and harvest the cotton. But when the market for cotton goes bad, their only hope of keeping the farm is bringing the first load of the harvest to the gin and winning an extra hundred dollars. During this process, a tornado strikes the town, Moses succeeds in angering the Ku Klux Klan, and Edna’s sister (Lindsay Crouse) suffers from a philandering husband (Ed Harris).
Robert Benton, the acclaimed director of Kramer vs. Kramer, wrote and directed this film, setting it in his own hometown. He knows these characters inside and out and captures their dialogue and idiosyncrasies beautifully. One of my favorite scenes is where Moses explains his deeply-held superstitions to Edna’s little son, Frank. It is a funny and heart-warming scene between two polar opposites that gives us a deeper understanding of life in the pre-Civil Rights 1930’s. Benton received numerous nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay and Directing, and won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Most people will not notice the magnificent cinematography, so I’ll take the liberty of pointing it out. Nestor Almendros’ compositions are simple and subtle, but it took planning and a true artist’s eye to make them that way. They carefully lead your eye to the most important information and his lighting captures a nostalgic, but gritty feel that colors the entire film.
The casting is first-rate. John Malkovich and Lindsay Crouse received Best Supporting Actor nominations and Sally Field won her second Academy Award for her courageous performance as Edna Spaulding. Danny Glover and Ed Harris continue to have fabulous careers today.
Because all of the technical elements in the film work so well, it allows us to really identify with the characters and focus on their plight. When bad things happen to them, we really feel their pain. We hate the Ed Harris character for carrying on an extra-marital affair and our heart breaks when his wife discovers the situation. Then our heart breaks again when he begs for her forgiveness. Benton allows us to see all sides of every situation, even the death of Edna’s husband. We feel so sorry for her and her children and understand the vengeance exacted on his murderer, but at the same time we can’t condone the racially-motivated violence.
Throughout all the difficulties these characters face, we ask ourselves: What can possibly save these suffering people? At certain places in the film, we are shown the church in the center of town. It is built of strong stone and no matter how the winds blow, it is a constant. The final scene of the film takes place inside the church as the preacher speaks of the need for charity. Benton pulls the rug out from under us and elevates the film to another level. I won’t spoil the ending, but you will be shocked by this remarkable turn of events. After showing us how life IS, Benton shows us how life can BE through the pure love of Christ.
Because it is such a thoroughfare of ideas, film is also one of the most controversial art forms. When I was encouraged to review this film for Meridian, I had my doubts. There are some LDS families who find the adultery subplot, racism, and hate violence too distracting. Or they feel that the existence of such hefty topics should confine the film to mature teens and adults. Once again, the Hollywood rating system does not help very much. The film is rated PG which doesn’t mean much these days. Or does it? I like to believe that “Parental Guidance” can mean more to Latter-day Saints than to any other people. We can turn an uncomfortable or potentially negative experience into a positive one with some careful parental discussion.
Other LDS families will surely appreciate the restraint with which Benton depicts the uncomfortable topics of racism and adultery. He certainly does not go as far as others have gone, but he does not bury it either. The existence (not glorification) of these awful evils actually strengthens the positive power of the theme. The theme of reconciliation and the surprise ending become deeply powerful in part because of the discomfort the sins depicted have caused both viewer and characters. I consider this film a work of amazing power that inspires me to greater charity. It moves me every time I view it, even though I know exactly what is coming. This is a small miracle to me, that what inspired the filmmaker can be communicated from a flat screen to my soul and find a place within my own heart. I hope it does the same for you.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.