Places in the Heart
Places in the Heart opens in Waxahachie, Texas in 1935 to scenes of the town and the sounds of a church choir. Edna Spalding (Sally Field), places the final dish at the table. As the dinner begins there are reactions to gunshots in the distance. Sheriff Frank Spalding Sr has a chance to eat a few bites before deputies come calling.
At the railway yards a young black boy is staggering around obviously drunk. He is still drinking from a bottle while firing off a revolver. The Sheriff approaches cautiously and calls him by name. The boy tosses up his bottle and shoots it and then fires off a few more rounds and the gun appears to be empty. Impulsively the boy points the gun at the Sheriff and pulls the trigger. Frank Spalding falls to the tracks. He is taken back to his home to die. The scenes change to the black boy being dragged down the streets coming to rest at the Spalding home in view of Edna and her two small children Frank Jr and Possum. Edna’s sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), and her husband Wayne (Ed Harris), arrive. Margaret runs off the two trucks of fully armed white men dragging the body. Eventually the boy’s body is hung from a tree and his family and friends come to cut him down. In the aftermath Edna is in a daze. Her entire world has changed and her family is in danger.
A black drifter Moses known as Moze (Danny Glover), comes by her house looking for work. He chops some wood and lobbies for more work. As he drops the wood off in the kitchen, he takes the opportunity to pocket some of her silver utensils.
Before long the banker appears at her door, makes a brief effort to pass on his condolences and moves on to his own agenda. He notes that Mrs. Spalding will soon owe the bank $240 to keep her house and reminds her of the reality of the Depression. He offers to help sell her house so that she can still have some cash left to meet family needs. Both realize that this would involve dividing up her family to live with other family members. He notes that “Sometimes it is necessary to split families up.” She rejects his offer and the thought of splitting up her family.
Moze appears at the door in the custody of the deputy. He was caught red handed with the silver he has stolen from the Spalding family, but Edna sees an opportunity and covers for him. With new found assertiveness she gathers information from Moze, obligates his participation, and warns him to keep clear of any trouble. He is to stay in the shed outside.
Edna goes to the bank and presents her plan to pay for the house note in October with the proceeds from her new cotton farm. She asks the banker to teach her to sign her first check for cotton seed. The banker expresses his disbelief in her plan and warns her but she persists.
At the cotton gin Edna negotiates her first deal but is given poor quality cotton seed. Moze runs afoul of the gin owner as he exposes the cotton seed as less than first rate. Upon the return home Moze vents his frustration at sticking his neck out by pounding nails and hanging up various “protective charms” over and around his door (garlic, peppers, chicken bones, horseshoe). He is introduced to Frank Jr who informs him that his daddy was killed by a black man. Moze reacts to the news. He proceeds to introduce Frank Jr. to some of his superstitions.
The banker makes a house call to the Spalding house. This time he arrives with his brother in law in tow — Will (John Malkovich), a war hero who was blinded in the war. The banker deposits Will at the doorstep and negotiates with Edna to place him there. He couches his language as an attempt to help her in her misguided efforts to hold on to her home and family. She politely defers but he persists with a veiled threat regarding her loan. Will is shocked at the behavior of his brother in law and clearly has no knowledge that he is being dumped.
Edna’s new patchwork family is now complete and there is a plan to save her place.
Across town Edna’s brother-in-law Wayne returns home from his affair with the local schoolteacher, Viola (Amy Madigan). Wayne comes in as Margaret is dressing. She has been dieting and is a bit less than receptive. Wayne uses chocolate to break down her dietary resistance and her resistance to him. They share an intimate moment, and not long after they have dressed, Wayne appears with Margaret at the local dance hall. Viola observes their approach and their obvious intimacy and Viola is not pleased with any of this entanglement. This does not prevent her from a rapid shift into best friend mode with Margaret, who confides with her about intimacies with her husband. Wayne tries again to steal a moment with Viola at the dance. Viola can no longer handle the infidelity to her husband Buddy Kelsey(Terry O'Quinn)and her betrayal of her friend Margaret and she breaks free from Wayne's dance. Of course her actions are observed by others in the dance hall. The rewards and consequences of small towns and small town relationships are a consistent theme of the movie, captured by the writer and director who grew up in Waxahatchie.
Edna's children invade Will’s privacy, enter his bedroom, and play one of his records. They hear him coming and burst out of his room, scratching the record. Will discovers the scratch and is outraged. He stumbles down the stairs and bursts into the kitchen. Edna has set up a bathtub in the kitchen and is enjoying a brief moment alone in a hot bath. Edna has never been nude around any man except her husband. Will does not know she is in the bath until he hears water dripping and realizes to his horror he has invaded her privacy in his outrage over his privacy. She helps him recover his composure and his direction and he bids her good night.
The eventful night concludes with the musicians cruising the long night miles back to their home places to the tune of one of many versions of (Cotton-Eyed Joe). The scene blends into Moze and Edna plowing and planting cotton.
Wayne Lomax buzzes the schoolyard in his speedster to once again woo Viola into returning to him while Frank Jr gets caught smoking at school. Edna is forced into yet another male role previously performed by her husband, as she must punish Frank Jr. Edna gathers instructions from Frank Jr as to the way she should spank him; she hesitates, then delivers the punishment while Moze and Possum empathize from outside. Frank Jr takes his spanking bravely, while Edna confides to Moze that she will not do this again and that she dearly misses her husband.
A major Texas storm is gathering as people scurry about the town. The schoolchildren are herded into the school building, but Frank Jr takes off for home at a run. Will breaks from his cane chair work and, realizing that Possum is in the house somewhere, begins searching for her. Edna runs in and joins the hunt. As Will feels around for Possum upstairs, she reaches out and grabs his hand and they head downstairs as the house begins to shudder. Frank Jr in his run home passes a woman who has been reduced to living in her car since the bank had foreclosed on her house. She opens her car door and insists that Frank "get on in here" for safety. All head to the storm shelter as the tornado approaches. Moze somehow hears Frank Jr and gathers him in and all go underground as the wind strips them down. Moze lights up a lantern as sounds of destruction fill the air. Windows explode as the schoolhouse goes down with the children screaming.
Moments later the winds die down and sunlight appears. The town is devastated, with buildings leveled. The schoolhouse is in the center of the devastation. Viola's husband reaches the school first. He comforts his wife who is virtually catatonic. She has managed to herd the kids into the only room in the schoolhouse that is still standing. Wayne demonstrates his first love as he also drives through the rubble to be with Viola but he arrives too late as Viola is already being comforted by her husband. Viola has had it and demands to move away. Moze and Edna look out over a changed landscape cluttered with galvanized corrugated metal. The scene cuts to the upside down, crushed car where the homeless woman had been living.
Mr. Will’s radio informs us that cotton prices have reached record low levels. At the bank, Edna is faced with the obvious facts: with cotton at 3.5 cents a pound, this will only generate 175 dollars. This is not enough for the house payment and there is no chance of cotton prices increasing. She leans on the banker to ask the bank president about less than a full payment. During her wait, Edna sees pictures at the bank that remind her of the Ellis County prize of $100 for the first bale of cotton brought in to the gin. Edna shares her new bailout plan, but her “family” members note that her plan is impossible. Edna reminds them that her family is at stake and now asserts her will upon the others, taking the role of head of the family.
Viola and Buddy Kelsey make a last regular visit to Margaret and Wayne to play cards. Their gin rummy game is interrupted by the announcement that they are leaving Waxahatchie for Houston. The recent exchanges between Viola and Wayne are enough to convince Margaret that something is up between Wayne and Viola. After the Kelseys depart, Margaret confronts him and slaps him, telling him that they are through as well. Wayne is devastated by the two losses in the same day.
Back on the cotton farm Edna’s family all begin picking cotton but make little headway on the 40-acre (160,000 m2) crop. The sweltering heat and the drone of the insects build to a fever pitch as the cotton bolls tear at fingers, arms, backs, and bodies. Moze turns to muttering. He discusses the lack of progress with Will, and Edna overhears their conversation. Edna orders him to hire extra pickers, but can pay them only if they win the prize for the first bale. This is a decision to risk all.
Will takes over the kitchen duties as all hands pick cotton. His sensitive ears pick up the sound of 11 trucks of cotton pickers arriving from further south. He reports this to Moze, who calculates that they have 3 days left to pick the cotton. In Edna’s exhaustion her mind escapes back to good times dancing with her husband and she wakes up in bed early in the morning still dressed. Will is already up snapping green beans. Edna is still in her dream as she moves through the kitchen, as the music and the dance come to an end and she is back in reality. She reorients to the day and then goes back to the day in the sweltering heat and the blistering cotton.
Will sets up his phonograph records for all to hear as they work into the darkness of night, under lanterns. Wayne shows up to help but this is not yet enough to convince Margaret that their relationship is worth redeeming. Possum falls asleep in a real bed of cotton. As the morning arrives Moze gathers Edna from her daze. On the way to the cotton gin Moze instructs her on how to make the negotiations. The dealer arrives to see if he and Edna can do some “bidness.” Edna drives a hard bargain and gets her price. She does well enough that Moze has dreams of a tractor and much more.
All are back at the dance hall again. Frank Jr. moves a step up toward manhood as he asks his mother for a dance and leads her confidently and stiffly. Wayne manages to convince Margaret to dance with him once again. The community responds by complimenting the two of them together. Margaret still has flashbacks of Wayne and Viola back together.
All is not right at the house while Edna is away. Will again picks out sounds. Moze goes outside to investigate and is accosted by white-hooded Klan members. Will hears the disturbance and finds the Sheriff’s revolver. He comes out shooting into the air to end the beating. The hooded figures are surprised by his ability. Using his well-developed hearing, he identifies the hooded figures by their voices and they depart. Moze apologizes but packs up and moves on, his dreams ended by the realities of 1935. Will tries to comfort him, but Moze departs his new “family”, leaving his best wishes and small gifts for Edna and the kids. Edna tells him that he was the one who brought the farm and the first bale of cotton together and that he should never forget this.
Viola and her husband depart for Houston and a new life.
The movie ends as it began, on a Sunday with church music. The minister reads "the Love Chapter" or 1 Corinthians 13. At the church Wayne and Margaret are together and she accepts him back, taking his hand. As the choir sings Wayne passes communion to Margaret and communion is passed from person to person living and dead: the banker, the wealthy, the musician, Moze, Will, Possum, Frank Jr, Edna, Frank Sr, and the black boy who killed him. The last words are “Peace of God” spoken by the boy to the Sheriff. It is a representation of an ultimate communion of living and dead. Also implying that Moze is in fact dead.
It won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Field) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. It was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Malkovich), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Crouse), Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Picture.
In 1985, when Sally Field reached the podium to accept her second Oscar (the first was for Norma Rae), she uttered the memorable (and much-mocked) line, "I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!" It is often misremembered as, "You like me—you really like me!"