Viewer Guide: Places in the Heart and At Any Price with Richard Peña

December 3, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is Places in the Heart, the depression-era drama from 1984 written and directed by Robert Benton.

It’s 1935 in Waxahachie, Texas, and even though it’s the heart of the great depression, times don’t seem all that bad for Edna Spalding, played by Sally Field in her second Oscar-winning performance for Best Actress. As the wife of the town sheriff and the mother of two, Edna has a Norman Rockwell-ish life in a solid house on a sizable farm, complete with prayers before dinner and plenty of food on the table.

Edna’s stability vanishes in an instant when her husband is killed in a moment of drunken recklessness, and she suddenly finds herself on her own. Plunged into the reality of what it means to be a single woman living the rural, segregated Texas of 1935, Edna soon finds herself confronting the prospect of losing her farm, as well as having her children taken away from her and placed with other another family. Faced with these equally unimaginable possibilities, Edna begins to discover a tenacity and business acumen she never knew she had. And along the way, two new men enter Edna’s life: an itinerant handyman named Moses, played by Danny Glover, and Mr. Will, a taciturn blind man played by John Malkovich. Each equally an outcast from a hard-hearted society, the threesome join forces in an increasingly desperate attempt to hang on to what little their lives have left for them.

Completing the cast of this quiet portrait of ordinary lives under extraordinary pressure are Lindsay Crouse as Edna’s sister Margaret and Ed Harris as Margaret’s husband Wayne, whose wandering eye has landed on the town school teacher Viola Kelsey, played by Amy Madigan.

At times evoking the striking visual poetry of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Places in the Heart was very much a personal project for writer-director Robert Benton, who actually grew up in Waxahachie, Texas. His sensitive depiction of a range of rural characters doesn’t mask his denunciation of the cruel streak that lay just below the surface of that seemingly pastoral idyll.

With a diverse mix of screenwriting credits that ranged from Bonnie and Clyde to What’s Up, Doc? to Superman, Benton’s breakthrough film as a director was Kramer Vs. Kramer in 1979, which won him his first Oscars for both screenwriting and directing. Places in the Heart won Benton his second screenplay Oscar, along with a Best Actress statuette for Sally Field, prompting her euphoric, “Right now, you really like me,” acceptance speech, for many one of the most memorable moments in Academy Award history.


At Any Price (2012)

This week’s indie is At Any Price, a 2012 drama directed by Ramin Bahrani.

At Any Price recounts a tale of ambition, greed, and father-son conflict which, despite the sunny tranquility of the film’s rural Iowa setting, steadily grows to the dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy. Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, a prosperous farmer who is also a regional salesman for genetically modified seed that requires licensing from a big corporate Agra company. Determined to stay number one in sales for the county, Henry’s aggressiveness knows no bounds; he’s not beneath maneuvering to buy a recently deceased farmer’s land even as he pays his respects at the man’s funeral.

We begin to understand Henry a bit better once we meet his disapproving father, as well as Henry’s hotheaded son Dean, played by Zac Efron, who shows no interest in pursuing Henry’s farm business. Dean dreams of escaping his father’s world with a career as a NASCAR driver, much as his older brother continually postpones coming home by going on one mountain climbing expedition after another.

Henry and Dean seem destined to continue on their divergent paths until an unexpected investigation into Henry’s business practices sets in motion an escalating series of events that will trigger a family crisis. Also featured in supporting roles are Kim Dickens as Henry’s long-suffering wife and Heather Graham as a woman who finds herself on intimate terms with both father and son.

Although born in North Carolina to Iranian-immigrant parents, Ramin Bahrani exhibits some of the same thoughtful, careful examinations of daily life that have been associated with many of the excellent Iranian films of the past few decades. His earliest works seemed to specialize in films about recent immigrants, yet unlike most films that focus on that most timely subject, Bahrani gave his immigrant characters rich, complex, personalities. Man Push Cart followed a Pakistani rock star struggling to make it on New York’s mean streets with a coffee cart; Chop Shop followed a Latino orphan in the junkyards of Willets Point; Goodbye Solo focused on a Senegalese cab driver.

Bahrani’s characters are never simply victims but, on the contrary, survivors who have learned, or are learning, how to maneuver in the new American society they’ve chosen as home. At Any Price represented a change of pace for the director, thrusting him into the American heartland for a tale on the souring of the American dream that seems even more relevant today than when first released. In 2014, Bahrani directed 99 Homes, a gripping drama on the unscrupulous home foreclosure market in Florida, and most recently, he remade Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451 for HBO.

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