Every actor excels in accomplishment, even the minor ones, such as Lane Smith as the banker, Jay Patterson as Sheriff Royce Spaulding, and especially Ray Baker as W.E. Simmons, the ever-righteous and arrogant Klan member. These people are as memorable as those we meet and get to know in our own lives, and they stay with us through our lifetimes, just like Charles Foster kane, Elwood P. Dowd, and Scarlett O'Hara, and so many, many important others from the celluloid world. If they handed out Academy Awards for minor roles (why don't they; they give everyone else one?) all three of these actors would have won. Lindsay Crouse was nominated for Best Supporting actress, Sally Fields won Best Actress, and Robert Benton took the prize for Best Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Director, and the Best Picture of the Year.
The scene of Edna Spaulding negotiating a price for her cotton with W.E. Simmons, the Klansman, who thinks he will bulldoze the poor widow for some extra profit, is a treasure all in and of itself.
The affair, also perplexing and out of place for many commentators, is essential; it truly cements in the viewers eye (and before the eye of the storm crashes in)how the pressure of small town life is closing in around the throat of Amy Madigan's character, Viola Kelsey, a pressure mostly created by her own choices. Her lover, Wayne Lomax (Ed Harris), husband to Edna Spaulding's (Sally Fields) sister (Lindsay Crouse), is just as frustrated, but far more self-destructing and willing to risk it all for what amounts to nothing, even as he dreams about it being more. The film shows the shedding of values and commitments for a little hankypanky that is just as destructive realistically as the tornado or the Klan. Maybe more so, which I think was the point of Benton's adding it as a subplot. Viola may blame the storm for her obsessive desire to get out of town, but the male characters and the audience know better.
Each character, such as John Malkovich's obsession with his precious records, has a special something they prize and hold onto, but eventually find valueless in the process of surviving with those around them. Danny Glover's Moze, though, is forced by the Klan to give up the most richly given gift in the movie; friendship and the comfort of a home that he loves, because he has been spiritually loved there.
The lethal tornado, outside of themselves and their decisions, is the only real monster in the lives of these good and hardworking Americans. The Depression is just a condition they live with. The bank and the banker (Lane Smith) make life tough while meaning to be helpful, but Edna Spaulding's determination is stronger than a vault of steel. Mother Nature provides the tornado, and the Klan provides the bad guy. Willy, the boy who shoots the sheriff, is actually his friend, or as much of one that a young black person could have been to a white sheriff in 1935 Texas. When he reappears in the communion scene that ends the film, so much is implied by his presence, and that of the deceased husband, that the true value of our lives and the things we share becomes explicit without a single word being said about it. My initial gasp was genuine, audible, and shocking to myself. This film is an artistic achievement rarely matched, and is on a personal list of the top 20 American films ever made. As stated, like any great film, the characters remain with you just like real people you have actually known. There isn't a weak moment of writing or acting in the entire film.