A plot synopsis of Places in the Heart, Robert Benton’s earnest, well-crafted period drama of Depression-era life in a small Texas town, might sound like an assemblage of stock plot devices. The crises, challenges, and confrontations, the character arcs and relationships — in a sense, we’ve seen them all before, and few of Benton’s ingredients haven’t been clichés in a dozen other films.
Yet this film, set in the town where the director’s family has lived for generations, is imbued with a knowing specificity that makes these particular crises and characters themselves, not stock devices. Benton has a way of structuring events not like a scriptwriter, with beginning, middle and end, but more like the way we often experience things as they happen, becoming aware of them at some point in the middle and losing track of them before the end. Events that might seem melodramatic in another film have here a ring of truth, as if these are the sorts of things that do (or did) just happen, and this is what it was like to live through them.
Sally Field gives an Oscar-winning performance as Edna Spalding, a wife and mother of two whose life is shattered by a sudden, pointless tragedy. In the aftermath, she is confronted by a bewildering array of hurtles which she never have imagined having to deal with, but must now rise to the challenge. These hurtles include financial dealings with condescending businessmen, a possibly shifty black drifter (Danny Glover), an unwanted and ungrateful boarder who is blind (John Malkovich), and a devastating act of God.
Some of the difficulties are dauntingly immense in scope. Others seem trivial by comparison, but can be just as difficult to face, as when an unwelcome discovery involving her son forces both of them to confront the gaping wound in their lives. Field succeeds in making Edna both fragile and tough-minded, defiant not by character or disposition but by sheer effort of will, unprepared in any practical way for what lies ahead but unswerving in her determination to succeed.
Watching Places in the Heart twenty years after its release, it occurs to me that the some of the challenges Edna faces are similar to those faced by Nicole Kidman’s Ada Munroe in last year’s Cold Mountain. But Field makes Edna far more persuasive than Kidman’s Ada, in part because Kidman never convincingly gets past her movie-star glamor, or seems believable getting her hands dirty with farm work. Field’s hands not only get dirty but bloody as well, and we wince with her as what seems at first gentle work becomes over time harsh and abrasive.
Another story thread deals with an adulterous affair involving Edna’s sister’s husband (Ed Harris). While this thread is as realistic as the rest of the story, it never meaningfully ties into the main story, and in the end it’s not clear that there is any satisfying reason for this subplot to exist in the same film as the events directly impacting Edna Spalding’s life.
Places in the Heart doesn’t overtly moralize, but it is wise about good and evil in everyday choices and real-life situations. Morally significant themes include prejudice, violence, fortitude, self-sacrifice, and generosity. By refusing to reduce characters to types, Benton maintains a persuasive level of moral nuance; one character could easily have been a stereotype of oppressed nobility, but commits a crime; another scene involves veritable icons of hate, but Benton sees the individuals and motives beneath the mask of evil.
There is also grace. A key turning point occurs when Edna shows mercy to a character who doesn’t deserve it, and subsequently receives unexpected help and support in her own needs. Another character who is misanthropically withdrawn finds redemption in slow stages, progressing from ordinary decency to true heroism.
Benton’s premise isn’t without sentimentality, but he is clear-eyed and realistic about how he lets events play out. There are victories, but partial ones, mitigated by failure and sin. Even so, the film’s vision, culminating in a coda with an unexpected touch of magical realism during a Baptist-style communion service, holds out hope for redemption and spiritual unity.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.