It would be difficult to overstate the quality of this movie. It contains the performance for which Sally Field received her second Oscar as “Best Actress in a Leading Role” (“You like me.” Yes, we do.) Places In The Heart also contains John Malkovich’s first movie role (not counting “made for TV” films). He received an Oscar nomination as “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” for this performance. In addition to these (and several other nominations not yet mentioned), Director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) received the Oscar for “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen” for the script which he based on memories of growing up during the Depression.
The story begins in Waxahachie, Texas during 1935 at the Spalding home with a family dinner. Royce Spalding (Ray Baker) is saying grace before his family begins eating their meal. His wife Edna (Sally Field) startles when she hears a distant gun shot. After a short while there is a knock at the door. Edna goes to answer it. Royce seems to increase the speed with which he dishes out food to his children: Frank (Yankton Hatten) and Possum (Gennie James). The man at the door is a deputy seeking Sheriff Spalding to handle a disturbance involving a drunken man with a gun. Royce gets up from the dinner table, grabs his holster and gun, kisses Edna and leaves to settle the problem saying he “won’t be gone long.”
The scene shifts to the town rail yard and a black man with a gun and whiskey bottle. As the Sheriff approaches he talks to Wylie, the black man, telling him that “he is drunk as a skunk” and “he ought to know better.” The Sheriff asks Wylie if he is ready to go with him. Wylie says “just a minute” and throws the bottle toward an empty field shooting it out of the air. Then he fires the gun into the field until it appears to be out of ammunition. As Wylie lifts the gun towards the Sheriff it fires again. The bullet hits and kills Royce almost instantly.
The scene shifts back to the Spalding home, where men carry Royce’s body into the house and place it on the dining room table where the prior meal had been set. Edna is in near shock. However, before the children, who are playing outside, reenter the house she tells them something has happened to their father. Edna’s sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) arrives at the Spalding house, while a group of men who have dragged Wylie’s body behind a truck wait out front. She tells them to leave. She and Edna prepare Royce’s body for the wake and burial.
The scene shifts again to an apparently abandoned house which acts as a romantic meeting place for two people: Wayne (Ed Harris) and Viola (Amy Madigan). This rendezvous seems not to be their first. A bit later at the Spalding house the wake is in progress when Wayne arrives there. He comforts Margaret, his wife. Not long after Viola also arrives with her husband Buddy (Terry O'Quinn). Later as the sisters sit on a porch bench, Edna tells Margaret that she doesn’t have “the least idea” how to go about supporting the family alone. She wonders aloud what will happen to them.
With the new day two funerals take place in parallel: Royce’s and Wylie’s, in separate graveyards. After all the funeral attendees but Margaret have gone, a lone black man named Moses, or Moze - for short (Danny Glover), comes to Edna’s door. He asks if there are chores he can do to help around the place. Margaret tells him “No” and that he should leave. Edna says there isn’t work but she’ll make him a plate of food. The next morning, he is in the yard chopping wood. Edna says she’ll make him breakfast but that he must leave. He suggests to her that she should plant cotton on her land, that he could help her do it, as he knows everything about planting and harvesting cotton. She says “No.” As he is leaving, Moze takes some silver spoons that are lying on the counter.
Albert Denby (Lane Smith) from the First Farmer’s Bank which holds both Edna’s savings and mortgage pays a visit. He encourages her to sell the farm and move in with relatives, perhaps placing her children in other homes. She refuses to do that and asks him to leave after saying she can’t talk about this now.
Later, the deputy who had previously called for her husband brings Moze to her door. Moze has told the deputy that Mrs. Spalding had hired him to work. Surprising both the deputy and Moze, Edna affirms that she has hired Moze and sent him with the silverware to her sister’s house. After the deputy leaves, she asks Moze to tell her again about cotton. He says they could do well. The next day Edna goes to the bank and asks Mr. Denby about how to write a check. She also tells him of her plans to plant cotton. He is very skeptical about her chances of success, but later brings his blind brother-in-law, Mr. Will (John Malkovich, brilliant in this role), to the Spalding house to be a paying boarder.
That introduces all the major characters and gives a synopsis of their situation. Edna and her children, Moze and Mr. Will are put together by circumstances. Those same circumstances dictate that they will either succeed or fail together. However, each of them maintains a separate dignity of their own. Together they make a new family. Their venture with the cotton is the central story of the movie.
Several story lines are woven together in this film. They make a canvas which displays a mostly positive and uplifting picture of the human condition. Places In The Heart explores human love in many of its various forms. In addition to telling a compelling story, each major character with their relationships shows some aspect of love. There are examples of romantic love; parental, sibling and other family love; the caring of a community and also religious love. Some instances are “sacred” and some are “profane,” but all are part of human life and presented in a quietly powerful manner. Although religion is prominent, as it was in American life in the ‘30s, it is not overbearing in this film. The non-religious can easily appreciate this movie (I do). The outstanding performances, great story and important themes explored in the film make Places In The Heart one of the best movies of its era.