Tag: Ellen Barkin

Tender Mercies (1983)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Quiet, contemplative and almost wilfully undramatic, Duvall wins an Oscar in this gently moving soul-searching film

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Robert Duvall (Mac Sledge), Tess Harper (Rosa Lee), Betty Buckley (Dixie), Wilford Brimley (Harry), Ellen Barkin (Sue Anne), Allan Hubbard (Sonny), Lenny Von Dohlen (Robert), Paul Gleason (Reporter)

The music industry can be cruel. It’s bought out the self-destructive traits in Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a Country and Western singer whose career collapsed into alcoholism. Estranged from his wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) and a stranger to his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin), Mac finds himself crashing, penniless, in a rundown motel in Texas. Paying for his bed and board with labour, Mac falls in love with and marries the motel owner, widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and becomes stepfather to her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac quits the bottle and turns his life around, living quietly and determined to become a new man.

Tender Mercies is a slice-of-life film. It aims to present an ordinary man, facing challenges and struggling with demons. But in many ways, it’s quite remarkable. There can be few dramas that so consciously avoid drama. In Tender Mercies the expected fireworks and dramatic tentpole moments never happen. Events that in other films would have been “for your consideration” scenes or so underplayed they almost pass you by, or don’t even feature in the film. Mac and Rosa Lee’s courtship is made up of small, quiet conversations on the sofa. The proposal is a polite, softy spoken request. The wedding isn’t even shown.

This is a film that lets events play out with the random disconnectedness of real life. Characters from Mac’s past life drift in and drift out of the story with the unpredictability of reality rather than the construct of scriptwriters. Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning script is written in soft, quiet moments of silence, tenderness and quiet decency. It’s a film that wants to embrace classic, Southern values. Where religion, modesty and keeping your word are pivotal. Kindness, reserve and a lack of exhibition are traits widely praised. It’s a celebration of letting the ‘tender mercies’ of faith into your life and letting them define how you respond to the world and events around you.

It can feel like very little happens. But this is largely the point. That’s what life is like. Mac decides to change his life and knuckles down and does it. Rosa Lee trusts him to keep his word. Temptations and moments of anger are rare, and events are usually met with a suppressed acceptance. You could argue that Mac is emotionally repressed – that perhaps he associates emotional expression with the wildness that clearly plagued his early life of drink and violence – but also perhaps it is intrinsic in his stoic character. In the broader scheme of life – and in this faith-tinged world – accepting the rough with the smooth is a duty.

Robert Duvall won an Oscar for this, and he is at the heart of the film’s quietness, gentleness and lack of demonstrance. Duvall is so quietly restrained he masters the technique of doing a lot while seeming to do very little. He is softly spoken and carries much of his emotion behind his eyes. Mac does little that is conventionally dramatic, but constantly Duvall lets his face, body and the careful soulfulness of those majestic eyes convey great regret, guilt and tragedy. Duvall’s Mac is gentle, but with the careful determination of a man determined to keep his second chance alive. There is a weary sadness at him, a longing for emotional connection that he struggles to express. And few actors would be willing to embrace a part so low on emotional fireworks. Even when tragedy strikes, Duvall remains quietly restrained.

He’s the perfect lead for this Chekovian conversation piece, well filmed by Bruce Beresford. Beresford brings a marvellous visual sense for the wide-open spaces of Texas and a perfect empathy for the observational, careful balance of the film’s narrative. It’s a film made up of events taking place in long and medium shot, filmed with natural lighting. Beresford encourages all the actors to gently underplay and lets his camera observe without flash and flair, letting the deceptively simple set-ups focus on the emotions.

It’s a film about a quiet quest for happiness – but also a wary suspicion of the pain and guilt life can bring. The fear that happiness can lead to loss and pain. Its why Mac has placed such a premium on stoicism. It’s an attempt by a fragile man to emotionally protect himself. He silently longs for a bond with his daughter, played with a wonderful little-girl-lost quality by Ellen Barkin, and struggles with the responsibility for the unhappiness he has caused his ex-wife Dixie (a more overtly fragile Betty Buckley). Happiness might not be what you expect – jubilant music and an explosion of joy – but quietly finding a contentment.

And contentment is embodied here by Rosa Lee, played with dignity and rectitude by Tess Harper. Rosa Lee is gentle, understanding and in many ways defined by her faith of forgiveness and second chances. She represents the rebirth that starts the film – which opens with a drunk Mac crashing to the floor – and is the lodestone around which the plot rotates, the fixed-point Mac needs in his life. Duvall and Harper have a fabulous chemistry and fully commit to the honesty at the film’s heart.

Tender Mercies is a honest short story expanded into a thoughtful and (in its way) brave film. It veers towards silence where other films would hit noise. It presents inaction and acceptance where other films would pick melodrama. It centres a still, calm continuation of events over fireworks. Duvall is central to this, an affecting performance of immense complexity under a stoic exterior, all framed around Beresford’s reflective shooting style.

It’s lazy to say this is “old fashioned” – no 40s film would be as uneventful and restrained as this – instead this feels like a final flourish of 70s filmmaking, a late burst of Malick-style American romanticism and poetry. Perhaps that’s why it was surprisingly nominated for multiple Oscars. And why it carries a quietly hypnotic power.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Some of the costume choices in this image probably help you to see what oddness you have in store…

Director: WD Richter

Cast: Paul Weller (Buckaroo Banzai), John Lithgow (Dr Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin), Ellen Barkin (Penny Priddy), Christopher Lloyd (John Bigbooté), Clancy Brown(Rawhide), Jeff Goldblum (New Jersey), Vincent Schiavelli (John O’Connor), Robert Ito (Professor Hikita), Carl Lumbly (John Parker)

Okay so watching that was strange. If you looked up “cult movie” in the dictionary you would probably see an embedded video of this film. It’s so cult it has literally no interest at all in appealing what so ever to anyone outside of its established sci-fi crowd. If Star Wars was sci-fi for the masses, this is camp sci-fi for the cultish elite.

The plot is almost impossible to relate but Buckaroo Banzai (Paul Weller) is a polymath genius – surgeon, rocket scientist, rockstar – who perfects a device that can travel through solid matter and dimensions. But creating the device makes him a target for a race of aliens, led by Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow) who live in the gaps between dimensions and want to use the device to escape.

The film is part straight-laced 1940s sci-fi serial, part tongue-in-cheek romp, part comic book, part satire. In fact it’s nearly impossible to categorise, which is certainly in its favour: you’ve certainly never seen anything like it before. It’s bursting with ideas and straight faced humour and clearly had an influence on sci-fi still today (for starters there are more than a few beats of Moffat-era Doctor Who here, while Banzai himself would fit in as The Doctor). It bursts out of the screen with a frentic energy, not massively concerned with narrative logic or consistency, its solely focused on being entertaining. It throws the kitchen sink at the screen with all the passion of fan fiction.

Despite all this I think you have to have a very certain sense of humour and set of interests to really enjoy it – and I’m not sure that I did. If you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and sci-fi you’ll probably feel like you are missing something (and you probably are). I’m also not sure there is much there to attract the “muggle” fan – Weller plays the lead with a smoothness and a charming straightness but he’s not the most interesting of characters (to be brutally honest). Lithgow counter balances him by going utterly over the top in a performance of ridiculous Mussolini-like bombast. But it’s not completely engaging. Basically if you don’t love it within the opening 25 minutes, you aren’t going to won over by anything else that happens. Every frame of the film is setting itself up as a chance for cult fans to speak to each other.

It actually rather feels like you are being invited to a party but then are left with your nose pressed up against the window. All the actors are clearly having a whale of a time with the other-the-top setting and bizarre half-gags. But I’m not sure all that enjoyment really travels across the screen to the viewer. While it’s sorta sweet in it’s almost sexless innocence (Birkin plays the lost twin of Banzai’s wife but there’s never a hint of real sexual buzz anywhere). Characters sport guns and hang around in a nightclub, but Banzai’s gang are essentially a group of 11 year olds who have taken adult form. So it’s gentle and has an innocent chumminess, but also a bit hard to engage with it.

I think in the end I just found it a little too eager and straining to be an outlandish, deliberately cultist film – it’s like an inverted elitest piece of modern fiction, that uses narrative tricks, devices and style to make itself harder for the regular viewer (or reader) to be part of its experience. So while this is something very different and almost insanely off the wall, it’s also something that is never going to move you or appeal in the way Empire Strikes Back will do.