(a “cotton Love” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
As you can watch from the YouTube video above, the last few moments of PLACES IN THE HEART is where this film truly comforts and finds that tender, often explored place in my heart. Speaking of the last few moments, I’ll end this film review with an intimate exploration of this last scene. It is, in my opinion, one of the best endings of any American film I have ever seen.
PLACES IN THE HEART, written and directed by Robert Benton, is a film set in the Depression about the rejuvenation and eventual redemption of one’s “depressed” spirit. It is a film about “cotton Love,” which I will explain later (“….and the greatest of these is Love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:13). It is a film about a woman who through her grief (there’s that subject matter yet again for me to comprehend through films) is able to have empathy and compassion for “the least of these.” The film opens with pain. Edna Spaulding loses her sheriff husband when he is shot by a drunk young black boy. Edna’s husband took care of everything for Edna, most importantly the bills, and with him gone, she has to find the strength inside of herself (and from others) to recover not only from the loss of her husband but also from the potential loss of her house and land and children. Edna does something that I believe she could only do because of her grief: She hires a black man, Moze (played by Danny Glover), to help her grow cotton to keep her home and land and children and also takes in a blind boarder, Mr. Will (played by John Malkovich). Black and blind are not easy “places in the heart” to be in the south during the 1930s, but Edna chooses “the least of these” because her grief has allowed her to care about those deemed “lowly.” Edna is well-compensated in this act of compassion and empathy, as it is this black man who brings her the best price for the cotton they grew, harvested and picked, thus saving her home and land and children, and it is this blind boarder who helps her see her own beauty and her capacity to love. Edna is who I would call a “female Jesus Christ” character, i.e., she sees the “lowly” and raises their game while, in return, they raise her game. What is this “game?” The power of redemption through love and forgiveness.
Speaking of hearts, bless Sally Field’s heart, as she will never be forgotten for her Best Actress Oscar speech for PLACES IN THE HEART when she exclaimed, “You like me! You REALLY like ME!” And, of course, the Academy Award Committee clearly did like her to award her the Oscar, and we like her, too, because she deserved it (please do not get me started on Sally Field’s first Best Actress Oscar for NORMA RAE (1979), for while she was certainly deserving, it was devastating that Bette Midler did NOT win for THE ROSE (1979), where Midler was stunning and off-the-chart phenomenal!). The supporting performances of Glover and Malkovich are also brilliant, particularly Malkovich who I have seen in many films and yet as the blind boarder Mr. Will in this film, if I saw Malkovich on the street walking straight and well-paced and well-stepped, I would have to go up to him and inquire, “What gives, Malkovich? Aren’t you blind?” Malkovich is that believable.
While PLACES IN THE HEART is a tender and thoughtful story, it does lack that “wham-bam, thank you ma’am!” punch of real emotional intensity, unless you would consider Field’s “thank you, ma’am!” performance lining up with this comment. Some films can feel dated from their original release, given what the world is like now (are you feeling me?) when such a film is seen, and I think this film does have that unfortunate reality to it. Nonetheless, what is not dated about PLACES IN THE HEART is that it is a film about how we all can feel and heal from our struggles and make choices that are not only for our own best but for the best of all others. It takes our heart on a journey of self-discovery and self-realization, when we discover and realize just how strong we are in the face of these struggles and just how love can come (and often does come) from grief.
So, what is this “cotton Love” I mentioned for this film review all about? When one thinks of God, there is often the look of white cotton and the feel of soft cotton as we look and feel God. Love can be thought of as white and soft cotton, as well. The interesting aspect to all of this, as it relates to PLACES IN THE HEART, is that when Edna and others are picking cotton, they all get stabbed by the hulls of the cottonseed. This brought up for me that, yes, God’s Love is White and Soft but it can also cut us deeply and then we bleed. It is the BOTH I write about all the time, i.e., God’s Love is about “cotton Love” that is BOTH beauty (white, soft cotton) AND pain (black, rough cotton) that resides, sometimes simultaneously, in the “places of our hearts.” Edna is the epitome of “cotton Love.” While at the beginning of the film Edna is all black and rough cotton due to the grief over her killed husband, she accesses in the “place of her heart” God’s Love. She helps those with black and rough cotton and says it none better to Moze when after he is attacked by the cowardly-masked, “white-covering-their-black-cotton” Ku Klux Klan, he has to leave Edna: “Moze, you took a no-account piece of land and a bunch of people that didn’t know what they were doin’, and you farmed it better than anyone, colored or white. Don’t you ever forget that.” She is a white woman acknowledging to a black man that he is white and soft “cotton Love.”
Okay, now I’m at the end of this film review and so eager to discuss the last scene in PLACES OF THE HEART. The last 4 minutes or so of this film are how I was reached in the divine “place of my heart.” It appears the entire small town community is gathered at this one church on a Sunday. The pastor reads from the Bible, to be exact 1 Corinthians 13 (ironically, as mentioned above), which is my all-time favorite Chapter of the Bible. It is a Chapter all about “cotton Love.” As the pastor finishes his sermon, the communion body and blood of Jesus Christ is passed down the pews. The camera pans the movement of this communion and all seems relatively “communed” until we start to notice that some of the people in this church taking communion died in the film. We’re like, “what’s going on?” And then at the very last moment, we see just Edna eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus Christ, respectively, until the camera moves to show Edna’s dead husband sitting next to her and taking the communion. Then, he passes it to the man next to him, who is in fact the drunk young black boy who killed him. Then, the (no-longer drunk) young black boy takes his communion and after he drinks the blood of Jesus Christ, he looks at the man he killed and says, “Peace of God.” Then, the camera shows both the dead husband and black boy looking forward, not really at us, but I swear I saw them looking at me! “Peace of God be with you, Timothy,” as I forgive those who have harmed me mentally, emotionally, physically and especially spiritually, prayerfully forgiving all to the point of my own eventual physical death. The last few moments of PLACES IN THE HEART solidifies the film as my (and your) story of forgiveness, redemption and forever salvation through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
While PLACES IN THE HEART might “underwhelm” as far as emotional intensity which is what I am often drawn to in films, it overwhelms for the subtleties of our physical and spiritual existence. It shows us “cotton Love” (God’s Love) that is for the taking (or picking) and how even, and maybe especially, with black and rough cotton from grief, we can all access that “place in our heart” to forgive those who have harmed us and thus receive God’s White and Soft Cotton through the White (Body) and Soft (yet Bloodied Nails/Hulls) Cotton of Jesus Christ.