Places in the Heart was conceived by Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) during a trip to his hometown, Waxahachie, Texas, where his family has lived for four generations. This sensitive writer and director fashions out of his memory and imagination an affecting story about a courageous widow, her extended family, and their struggle for survival during hard times. The evocative cinematography of Nestor Almendros captures and conveys the abiding beauty and simplicity of rural life in a small community.
The time is the 1930s. Although many farmers have lost their land because of the Depression and some have been left so destitute they must live in their cars, the Spalding family has been spared. Royce (Ray Baker) is the sheriff of Waxahachie; he lives with his wife Edna (Sally Field) and their two children on a 40-acre farm outside of town. A pious man, he gives thanks to God before their Sunday meal and is then called away from the table on an emergency: a young black boy has gotten drunk and is shooting off a gun down by the railroad tracks. Just as the boy is about to hand the weapon over to the sheriff, it accidentally fires. Royce is hit and dies immediately. Edna and her children's lives are upended; they will have to learn how to live with the difficult.
The white men of Waxahachie execute the black boy and drag his body to Edna's house. Seeing him, her heart is filled with grief, not hate. She asks her sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), "What's going to happen to us? I can't support this family. I haven't the least idea how to do it." The banker who holds the mortgage to Edna's home urges her to sell the farm. But she is determined to stay.
One day Moze (Danny Glover), a black itinerant worker, appears at her door and offers to work in exchange for some food. When Edna refuses to give him a steady job, he steals some of her silverware and disappears. Later, he is picked up by the police and brought before Edna. In a stroke of grace, she forgives Moze and hires him to plant and harvest a cotton crop on her land. It is the only way she can get the money she needs to make her mortgage payment.
Then the banker arrives with Mr. Will (John Malkovich), his blind brother-in-law who lost his sight during World War I. Edna agrees to take him on as a boarder. Mr. Will, who supports himself by caning chairs and making brooms, is a lonely and bitter man who quickly states: "I don't need your help, and I don't need you to feel sorry for me."
At first Moze and Mr. Will are strangers to Edna and her children, Frank and Possum. Then they become friends. Moze gives Frank his lucky rabbit's foot to ward off trouble. When Edna spanks her son for smoking behind the school, Mr. Will and Possum share his pain as if it were their own. However, it is only when a tornado sweeps across the farm that these five individuals become a family. Each risks his or her own life to save another. The bonds that are forged during this disaster help them meet the biggest challenge of all harvesting the cotton and getting it to the buyer in time to win the bonus price for the first crop.
While Edna struggles to make a go of the farm, her sister Margaret supports her family by running a small beauty parlor in their living room. Her husband Wayne (Ed Harris) has been having an affair with her best friend Viola (Amy Madigan), the town's schoolteacher. When Margaret learns what has been going on, she cannot forgive him. Even after Viola and her husband leave town, the feeling of being betrayed stings Margaret's heart.
The Ku Klux Klan in Waxahachie are enraged that Edna trusts Moze, a black man, as a business partner and friend. When Moze also proves to be a shrewd cotton grower, the KKK attack and nearly kill him. Out of love for Edna, Frank, Possum, and Mr. Will, he decides it is time to move on.
The closing scene takes place in a church. As the camera slowly pans the congregation receiving communion, we recognize all the characters those living and dead and departed for other places. It is an image in which the lambs and the wolves, the wronged and the wrongdoers, the betrayers and the betrayed, are all together as one. It is an unforgettable cinematic statement about hope.