Release Date(s)1984 (July 14, 2015)
Studio(s)TriStar Pictures (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C
Time has been very kind to the films of writer-director Robert Benton, all of which play even better now than they did at the time of his release. Ironically, however, the films themselves have declined in popularity – while Benton was one of the stars of his generation, winning multiple Academy Awards and finding commercial and critical success as both a writer (Bonnie and Clyde, What’s Up, Doc?, Superman) and director Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), in recent years his reputation among cinephiles has become largely nonexistent. He’s a figure ripe for rediscovery, as his type of filmmaking – smart, accessible, slickly entertaining classicism for adults – has become rarer and rarer with the disappearance of a system to support it. The types of modest star-driven genre pieces and dramedies at which Benton excelled, like the Roy Scheider-Meryl Streep thriller Still of the Night or his exemplary pair of late Paul Newman vehicles (Nobody’s Fool, Twilight) are no longer possible; the independent world doesn’t have the scale and the studios aren’t interested in Benton’s more sophisticated pleasures.
I can think of no better place to discover – or rediscover – Benton’s work than Twilight Time’s beautiful new Blu-ray of Places in the Heart. The 1984 film came five years after Benton’s commercial and artistic high point with Kramer vs. Kramer, and represented another triumph of personal filmmaking that perfectly intersected with what the public wanted to see. That the movie was so popular seems strange now, given how relaxed and unforced its charms are; the story of a rural widow (Sally Field) left to care for her children and her land by herself in Depression-era Texas, it’s shockingly unsentimental given the subject matter. Benton follows the widow (loosely based on his own mother) as she forms a pair of friendships with a poor black wanderer (Danny Glover) and a blind boarder (John Malkovich) and they work together to save her land, but a quick summary of the plot can’t really do this movie justice. It’s not a run of the mill “triumph over adversity” tale, but a richly textured portrait of a time, a place, and a community. The film is filled with small moments and gestures that Benton’s subtle camera infuses with historical and emotional weight; without overstating his points, he manages to turn a minor character study into an epic contemplation of race, work, and the virtues and shortcomings of the American character itself.
He does this not only with the help of an outstanding ensemble cast (in addition to Field, Glover, and Malkovich, there is fine work here from Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Lane Smith, and others) but also with the assistance of one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. Truffaut favorite Nestor Almendros had already collaborated with Benton on two previous pictures, but here his pioneering use of natural light reaches its zenith; the characters are bathed in a lovely but realistic glow similar to that of Almendros’s Oscar-winning images in Days of Heaven. The sense of visual detail is extraordinary, and Twilight Time’s new transfer – taken from a 4K restoration recently undertaken by the good folks at Sony – is clear, vivid, and astonishing in its tonal range. If Places in the Heart is partly a tribute to the glories (and, in a terrifying tornado sequence, the horrors) bestowed upon the land by God, this new Blu-ray release is a spiritual experience of its own, a testament to the awesome visual potential of the format. Aurally the disc is slightly less remarkable, but this is due to the film’s original mix, which was in mono and therefore doesn’t have the sonic power of contemporary films that utilize all the surround channels. The sound here is faithful to the picture’s theatrical release prints, and razor-sharp in terms of its clarity and its seamless balance of dialogue, effects, and music. As is customary with Twilight Time releases, the score is available as an isolated audio track.
The only supplement on the disc (aside from a theatrical trailer) is a commentary track in which film historian Nick Redman interviews Sally Field. Redman has contributed a number of superb scholarly narrations to previous Twilight Time discs, but he’s got his work cut out for him here; Field doesn’t give him or the listener much in the way of insights or even entertaining anecdotes, and her self-admitted poor memory leads to some historical errors, which Redman occasionally exacerbates. At one point Robert Altman stalwart Bert Remsen is misidentified as Cliff Bruner, and at another Field places Back Roads about five years late in her filmography. These and other mistakes are minor, but add to the overall sense that there’s no real value in this commentary track – one is left mostly with Field’s ruminations about how hard she has had it in her career, a claim that might seem strange to other actresses who didn’t have the benefit of working virtually non-stop for fifty years with directors like Benton, Spielberg, Zemeckis, Martin Ritt, and Sydney Pollack. Mediocre commentary track aside, Places in the Heart is essential viewing – a flawless transfer of a flawless film.
- Jim Hemphill