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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.   

    Heart plays 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

11-16-01 

Jeremy Heilman