Tender Mercies won the Best Actor Academy Award, and Best Original Screenplay when the event was held in the early months of 1984. Written by Horton Foote, who had previously worked with Robert Duvall on the adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird – and reccomended him for this role. Duvall gives a subtle and nuanced, heartbreaking performance as Mac Sledge.
Mack is a former country singer who suffers from alcoholism and attempts to piece his life back together with the love of an Inn owner named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and her son. His ex-wife (Betty Buckley) is a Nashville style country western singer much in the vein of Dolly Parton. And has a court order against Mac that he not have contact with their 18 year old Daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Most of the work done by Duval is done in his eyes, sad and guilty, his voice completely changes as Sledge, a small but potent performance, from the long time leading man. He learned to play the guitar, and sings his own songs while performing throughout the film. His tenderness is really wonderful in the scenes with Sonny, as he watches him strum the guitar.
Bruce Beresford directed Tender Mercies, and earned him Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. He frames so many of the rural surroundings with such scope, vision, and insight to the landscape of Texas and the sparse surroundings the characters find themselves in. These are people who are Texas, feed stores, music halls, country western fills the soundtrack and places us directly in a specific world. Complete with painstaking detail and pageantry. The Inn is in the middle of nowhere, and Beresford utilizes the sparse area by making us feel the distance between objects and capturing the space between during long takes that drink in the atmosphere.
The culture of Texas is also quite apparent in the characters decisions, actions, and motivations. Despite his alcoholic past, Mac is polite, courteous, and well mannered. He has lost so much and suffered through a hard life despite finding country music fame. He has a lot to say, but he keeps it all in. Duvall expressing the sadness that rests just below the surface is something incredible to watch. In a wonderfully done medium shot that’s lengthy and extended, Mac tells Rosa Lee how he feels about everything that has happened to him. “I don’t trust happiness. I never have. I never will.”
This was the moment that I could truly appreciate all the hard ground work that screenwriter Foote had put into the rest of the film. That line about being truly hopeless about finding happiness that it doesn’t even seem like a possibility or distinct reality. There’s always that possibility of everything turning on a dime and you’re left with nothing, what promise, what guarantee do we have of being happy? Doesn’t it seem truly pointless, when the people you love can be taken away in the blink of an eye? It’s a wonderfully executed scene, that casually circles around to it’s participants, slowly building the shot to it’s maximum impact. I found myself mostly impressed at the film as a whole, it completely succeeds in executing what it set out to do.
Some of the most entertaining or humorous scenes in Tender Mercies are the scenes with Rosa Lee’s Son, Sonny. Sonny is precocious and sweet, played by 9 year old Allan Hubbard. He offers the central heart to our film’s narrative. Less focus on him would have turned him into a token character, and I appreciate the focus and commitment to the fleshing out of his story. Mac and Rosa Lee get married as if it’s an afterthought, both of these people have their own past they’re looking to forget. Mac suffers with alcoholism throughout the film and one night doesn’t come home until very late, creating the tension as we watch Rosa Lee and Sonny worry about the man they love.
Tender Mercies is grounded in the small, family oriented, Reaganism of the 1980’s. There were more narratives that appealed to a different decade of consumers and the changing economics of Hollywood and the Studios. It’s a movie that spoke to middle America and the rural life many find a great pride in, as well as the background being country western music. For an entire region of the United States country or country western music is a culturally norm that has existed for at least 100 years. Country music harkens back to a simpler time that many rural Americans prefer and deals with a familiar milieu of loss and the emptiness that accompanies it.
The atmosphere created in Tender Mercies is also largely tied to economics. These are poor to maybe middle class individuals. They don’t make much money, they don’t have much, but their culture binds them together, the church. We see all of these influences play a major role in these characters lives.
Tender Mercies is not a film that I would necessarily gravitate towards. Or the type of story that most appeals to me. But it is a film that is a really well made meditation of rural life. Regret, loss, and the feeling that you have no control over ultimately what happens. That things are largely out of your hands when it really comes down to it. And all we can do is hope for the best. Perhaps that’s my pessimistic nature to see things as ending, degrading, and to see the eventual demise of things. What is Mac supposed to hold onto? Does the fact that a good woman loves him, enough to keep him up right? I don’t know, that just sounds like a good country song.