Saturday, 28 May 2016

Movie Review: Tender Mercies (1983)


The story of a has-been country singer who hits rock bottom and has the opportunity to start climbing back up, Tender Mercies is an affecting film with its heart firmly in honest territory.

Deep in rural Texas, washed-up and divorced former country music singer and songwriter Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) lands at the ramshackle motel owned by single mom Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac is broke and drinking heavily, but Rosa Lee offers him a few dollars in return for helping her with odd jobs and staying sober. He sticks around, they grow attached to each other, and get married.

Mac settles uneasily into a life of sober domesticity, but the passion to write music never quite leaves him. When his ex-wife and country music star Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley) arrives on a tour stop nearby, Mac tries to reconnect with her and their teenage daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Dixie's manager and Mac's old friend Harry (Wilford Brimley) is sympathetic, but Dixie wants nothing to do with Mac. As word of Mac's new life starts to spread to his former fans, he is drawn back to the world of music.

Directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Horton Foote, Tender Mercies is a small film with a compact story told with simple elegance. Beresford dives deep into the characters of Mac Sledge and Rosa Lee, and creates two textured characters at the crossroads of life. The film enjoys plenty of quiet moments filled with the authentic desire of life-hardened adults to get better and benefit from well-earned the scars.

Making excellent use of wide open Texas scenery, Tender Mercies is beautiful to look at, and Beresford often contrasts the immense landscapes with his vulnerable characters. In this terrain there is no option not to struggle; characters like Mac and Rosa Lee will succeed or fail according to their willingness to invest in the hard work of fighting for happiness.

The film weaves in themes of religion, redemption, missing bonds between fathers and children, and the turmoil of early marriages gone wrong. None of the messages are heavy handed. Rather, Beresford allows his characters to accept the luggage on their back while looking ahead, and the film generates momentum from finding decision points where the past is either repeated or built upon. However, not all the elements quite work, and most of the scenes with young Sonny and his school friends are quite creaky.

The prevailing calm tone is best exemplified in one pivotal scene. Upset by his inability to get past Dixie's hostility, Mac goes AWOL on Rosa Lee and Sonny. They anxiously wait for him to return as he manically drives around the backroads, debating whether to drink, flee or find his way back. Should he dare go back to Rosa Lee, her reaction could determine both their futures. He does return, and the welcome he receives says everything about two adults applying life's lessons towards the potential for a better tomorrow.

Robert Duvall finally earned his Best Actor Academy Award for his understated performance as Mac Sledge. Avoiding any excess of emotions, Duvall expresses a life full of regret and a future filled with dilemmas with quiet authority, Mac emerging as a believable man not running away from neither his flaws nor his dreams. In her feature film debut, Tess Harper is a revelation, matching Duvall and portraying the resourceful and independent woman who catches a plummeting soul and tries to reset him onto an even path.

Poignant and fully respectful of its culture, Tender Mercies is as melancholy as a heartfelt country music song.






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