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Places in the Heart (Robert Benton) 1984
Few movies hit you so unabashedly over the head and
in the heart with melodramatic heft as Robert Bentonís Places in the Heart, yet manage to avoid feeling cheap. Places
definitely feels manipulative and sometimes even shameless, but cheap isnít a
word that applies here. The film is gorgeous, and not just in its many landscape
shots. Even the filmís interior scenes are framed well and attractive.
Thereís a picaresque vision of the Depression-era Dust Bowl that should ring
false, yet somehow, it doesnít bother me. The machinations of the plot are on
full display (within the first ten minutes there are two deaths, an affair, and
the threat of a lost home), but I never felt cynical toward the parade of
tragedy that the film presents. The horrors that we see feel like a greatest
hits selection of Midwestern traumas, and rarely lets up. I realized my critical
sensors should have been rejecting the filmís obviousness, but I didnít
dislike what I was seeing at all. That rare reaction to the film (I am often
accused of being a cynic) functions similarly to my experience when I read the
first Harry Potter book. I knew what I was reading lacked much depth of
character or politic, but the sheer amount of narrative thrust basically kept me
from noticing, and kept me enraptured.
exceptionally fast, especially in its first hour. There is very little flab on
the picture, and sometimes that works against the film. We donít get to see
Sally Fieldís character tell her children about an important death, even
though it could have been an obviously great acting moment. The entire feel of
the film seems be something like a popularized, literal Days of Heaven. There is far more exposition shown through sidelong
glances and outright action than through dialogue. Itís a thoroughly cinematic
effort. Much credit must also be given to the diverse cast of talented actors.
They all have gone on to do significant work, and all turn in excellent
performances. Against all odds, they sell the melodrama.
I think the biggest contributor to the filmís success, however, is its
stone-faced seriousness. There are few moments of comic relief, and though
Bentonís sure hand is displayed during his extraordinary set pieces, it
doesnít grow lax in the other scenes. He never, for a moment, allows us to
forget the gravity of the situation, and although that might sound overbearing,
it is probably the only way to make this material work.
* * * 1/2