PG | 1 h 51 min | Drama | 1984
Decades before the Depression, the southeastern states lost considerable cotton acreage under cultivation to boll weevil attacks or droughts or heat waves or storms.
Until mechanized farming became commonplace, this economy depended on one person: the cotton picker. Bent at the hip, one arm picking, the other flinging cotton into sacks slung from the head or shoulder, pickers—men, women, and children—picked from dawn to dusk until wagons were loaded for buyers. The picker’s hands told a story. Torn thumbs and fissured fingers spoke of defeat after defeat, and some victories so sweet because they were so rare, so hard-won.
Screenwriter-director Robert Benton, born in 1930s Waxahachie, Texas, weaves unique insights into his screenplay and direction of “Places in the Heart,” a fictional portrayal of his boyhood town and its townsfolk.
Meet the Family
After her sheriff husband is accidentally killed while on duty, Edna (Sally Field) has to care for her two children and their family farm. As she tentatively weighs her options, including growing cotton in a cruelly competitive market, she has to overcome her fears in order to meet her family’s needs in a town riven with racism.
Two strangers, both men, offer to help. One is black drifter Moze (Danny Glover), who knows his way around a farm. His incisive understanding of the market ends up giving Edna the edge she needs with traders out to make a fast buck on the back of her naivete. The other man is white and blind, Mr. Will (John Malkovich). He turns up as a kindly tenant paying a rental income that sustains Edna during tough times.
The film won two of its seven Oscar nominations, including Field’s for Best Actress. Benton won an Oscar for his screenplay and a nomination for his direction. Field, Glover, and Malkovich are outstanding; you feel their fears, embarrassments, their likes, their dislikes, their faults, and hopes.
Field portrays Edna’s fear of being exploited for her ignorance, her dependence on Moze to tell poor grain from good or to hire pickers, and her dependence on a banker to learn to sign a check. She transforms from a cocooned wife to a widow, working her hands and knees raw under a blazing Texas sun.
The Need for Each Other
Two fibers run through Benton’s cotton narrative: faith and fate.
Faith hovers above the town like a giant cloud of cotton, shielding them from despair. Families close their eyes, bow their heads, and fold their hands in prayer before meals. They sing hymns in church.
Edna takes a leap of faith in trusting Moze, even after he’s caught stealing her silver spoons. He responds through his backbreaking work on and off the farm. She takes another leap of faith, welcoming Mr. Will as a boarder. Her faith rewards her: Far from exploiting her vulnerability, both men turn protective toward her and the children.
This recognition of a need for each other stretches right through. Early in the morning, Moze briefs black pickers on the bruising labor ahead. He turns to Edna as she steps out the door. Seeing weary faces she asks, “Have they had breakfast yet?” In a telling moment depicting utter poverty, Moze doesn’t need to turn back and ask them. Without missing a beat, he says, “I doubt it.”
Fate hovers like a cloud of cotton, too, but differently. It runs amok in the form of unexplained infidelities in otherwise loving families, and senseless acts of violence that claim lives. And there’s nature’s fury in the form of the occasional, but no less devastating, tornado.
The tornado scenes here are some of the most realistic. Experienced folk spot early warning signs in dark swirling skies, as they run for cover to storm cellars. Others warn children to stay clear of glass windows that may shatter in a gust. With all the fury of an evil prophecy, the tornado tears rooftops, strips corrugated sheets off their moorings, crushes walls, barns, and porches, and twists fences and trees out of shape.
Of course, through Benton, the sun eventually comes out. Will’s physical blindness is a call to a kind of psychological blindness to race or color. Benton is saying that, just as Will is unable to discriminate, we ought to refuse to discriminate. And he uses Will’s character to deliver that point in a gripping scene involving Moze, and in touching and amusing scenes involving Edna.
Benton weakens his storytelling by bolting on to his plot an infidelity subplot involving Edna’s sister and her wayward husband—all a little too distracting to be meaningful. But Benton more than makes up for it with a moving final scene that’s magical in its delivery and impact.
‘Places in the Heart’
Director: Robert Benton
Starring: Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 5, 1984
Rated: 4 stars out of 5