This 1983 film moves me to tears every time I see it. A masterfully restrained script, naturalistic and unpretentious directing, and the brilliant acting of the entire cast (especially lead Robert Duvall) combine to make this understated—and underrated—movie a heart-wrenching gem.
Mac Sledge (Duvall) is a country singer/songwriter on the down and out. As the film opens he is engaged in a drunken argument over a bottle in a run-down motel/gas station in some desolate part of Texas. When he awakens the next morning his drinking companion has left the scene and Mac, penniless, is forced to ask the proprietor of the humble establishment, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), if he can work for her to pay off what he owes. She agrees on the condition that he not drink while he is working for her. Then she offers him breakfast.
We can only guess why Mac decides to stay on at Rosa Lee’s after he has worked off what he owes. Perhaps the stability and the subtle care provided by this sensitive but very sensible woman effect the beginning of a kind of healing for his wounded soul. He even begins singing and writing songs again, although he rejects any suggestion that he move back into the limelight. That place is still occupied by his ex-wife—a popular but somewhat neurotic country singer—and the songs he wrote for her. Then, in one of many touching scenes in this movie, he shyly asks Rosa Lee if she will marry him. She says yes.
But the old Mac has not disappeared completely. He attends his ex-wife Dixie’s concert one night, hoping to give her a song he has just written. They meet and the bitterness that has been stored up since their divorce quickly erupts. She later rejects the song and sends it back to him via her manager. Mac is hurt and angered by the rejection and deeply saddened by the fact that he cannot see his teenaged daughter, who is growing up without him. Rosa Lee, who has been silently observing Mac’s reaction, tells him how much she loves him and asks him to sing the song to her. It turns out to be a song of love and gratitude written for her. But his anger still burns and before he even finishes the song he takes off in the family pick-up, leaving Rosa Lee to worry about what he might be doing.
This is a pivotal sequence in the film. Mac is powerfully tempted to drink but manages to resist and eventually comes home. His return and Rosa Lee’s reaction form one of the most understated yet moving scenes in Tender Mercies. The first thing he says to her when he shows up is, “I’m not drunk. I bought a bottle but I poured it all out. I’m not drunk.” She asks him if he’s hungry and proceeds to fix him something to eat. In a rare moment of openness the taciturn Mac reveals that he misses the music.
Mac’s resurrection seems assured: He gives a couple of his songs to a local band and then agrees to sing with them at a club and finally even to record the songs with them; the record promises to do well. Mac and his stepson are baptized at Rosa Lee’s church. And he is reunited with his daughter. But tragedy precludes the full achievement of happiness and in the end Mac must be satisfied with a kind of uneasy contentment. Given the journey he has taken, that is enough.
This is a quiet masterpiece of a movie, a film that almost did not get made because no American director would touch it. Nearly every scene is powerful and every character is utterly believable. Robert Duvall is brilliant (as usual, in my unbiased point of view) as the broken, flawed Mac who ends up in a safe place but just can’t quite make it all the way to a truly happy life. Tess Harper is the perfect haven for the repair of Mac’s frailty and insecurity. The supporting cast is equally strong. And Horton Foote’s script is a poetic map of the human journey.
Robert Duvall won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Mac Sledge and Horton Foote won for best original screenplay. Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Black Robe, Driving Miss Daisy) was nominated for best direction. Tender Mercies was also nominated for best picture and best original song.
The film was not a box office success.
Tender Mercies Set @ Wikipedia
Tender Mercies Poster @ Wikimedia
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