Initially released in only three theaters, and making less than modest gains at the box office by the end of its run, Tender Mercies eventually garnered five Oscar nominations. It’s been thirty years since the film made a noticeable splash at the Academy Awards., but it’s an indie film just as the indie film scene was beginning to take shape. With a great sense of intimacy — though not perfect — Bruce Beresford’s film still holds up.
- Director: Bruce Beresford
- Writer: Horton Foote
- Cast: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard
Mac (Robert Duvall) is an alcoholic former country singer. With his fame all but forgotten and no where to go, Mac convinces a widowed motel owner, Rosa (Tess Harper) to let him stay at the motel in exchange for providing labor while also staying sober. Meanwhile, just as Mac seems intent on piecing together his life, a young band becomes interested in his career when a local reporter finds him and writes a story revealing his past.
Much of what is lauded about this film can be reduced to some type of praise for authenticity. Robert Duvall accomplishes a strong performance that feels subtle yet convincing. With understated acting and minimalist writing, the dialogue and interactions do feel genuine. Adding to the minimalism, the locations are desolate and present parts of Texas that remind us of Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show. In terms of mood and tone, director Bruce Beresford does a great job with pacing, using barren landscapes and the sound of wind evoke isolation. Considering that most of the film is shot using only available lighting, the photography goes a long way towards further conveying reality.
But while Tender Mercies can claim a reasonable degree of authenticity, the story progresses loosely and its momentum stalls. There are heartfelt moments, but are also things that don’t feel quite deserved. An early scene has Mac asks Rosa whether she’ll think about marrying him and she responds by saying “yeah, I will”, an exchange that feels a bit forced. Mac’s relationship with Rosa does evolve and become meaningful, his history and revisited relationship with his former wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) represents a more compelling storyline. Betty, an actress/singer, manages to steal the limelight, as her numbers and emotionally-laden personality are one of best elements in the film. Mac’s relations with Rosa’s son Sonny (Allan Hubbard) is rewarded by the film’s end, despite the lack of a truly transcendent scene between them.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
While the story of an alcoholic who has lost his career, his wife and his daughter feels as though it should be a cliche, Tender Mercies does manage to avoid conventional simplicities while providing considerable weight to a simple story. As for Mac’s relationship with Rosa, I have mixed feelings about how the film chooses to skip over any kind of courtship between them. I’m willing to entertain your thoughts on this matter when you say, “They are married off-screen. The movie has bigger fish to fry.” But when you say that the film is more about other baggage that they bring to the movie, I was left wanting to see more of that baggage, especially the baggage between Mac and Dixie. When describing the result of the young band that records Mac’s songs, I agree when you say that “life, unlike art, has a way of introducing elements that never do develop into anything”, although this and other uncovered sub-plots end up feeling insufficiently explored and resolved. Mr. Ebert, when writing these few lines to you, I too listened to some Hank Williams, and I agree that it does feel like part of my review of your review.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Tender Mercies? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Moolaade
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies this week, he now has 302 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.