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.