Title: Tender Mercies
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Bruce Beresford
Writer: Horton Foote
Music: George Dreyfus
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Lenny von Dohlen
An endearing portrait of a weather-beaten American country musician Mac Sledge (Duvall), who takes the pledge and plumps for an ordinary life with his new wife Rose Lee (Harper) in the sticks. Australian director Bruce Beresford’s first Hollywood outing emphatically breaks his duck by inducing an Oscar-crowning tour-de-force from a wonderfully amiable Robert Duvall, and what is more at a premium is the film’s unpretentious tonality and lyrical felicity which stirs up an aptly authentic reverberations among its viewers, out of the story’s sensible universality and abstention from small-town provincialism.
Fetching up in a motel in a middle-of-nowhere Texas, the lush Mac is broke and has to pay off his staying by working for the motel owner, that happens to be Rose Lee, a young widow who has lost her husband in the Vietnam war and now runs the motel with her school-age son Sonny (Hubbard, this is his sole screen credit but he is down right sympathetic). A down-to-earth union takes its shape in due course and that is the blissful family life a man and a woman (and a fatherless child) could ever dream of.
Meantime, Mac’s backstory trickles alongside his new-found happiness, his ex-wife Dixie Scott (Buckley, shrilly shines in her Dolly Parton-inflected singing bent and edgy streak) is still a highly demanded touring singer feeding off on songs Mac wrote for her, and Mac has been proscribed from seeing their daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin’s second film credit), now in a troubled age of 18, ever since the inimical divorce (whose raison d’être entails alcoholism and domestic violence). So naturally, there are some fences needed mending, and through tacit love, old/new friendship and religion (not pedagogic but with a waft of sincere communion), Mac will eventually get hold of the most precious values about love, loss, family and life itself (past and present), they are mundanely traditional, but gleaming with a patina of poetic finesse under Beresford’s sober and unobtrusive execution (you might anticipate an old soak’s inevitable interlude of backsliding, which would serve as a jolting plot swerve, but nonetheless, that doesn’t need to happen every time in a movie’s plot!), which elevates this gem from other blasé offerings replete with lachrymosity and/or melancholia.
The film is based on American playwright Horton Foote’s tenderhearted and unaffected script (also reaped an Oscar), his very first original screenplay if truth be told, and there is no dispute on Mr. Duvall’s quietly touching impersonation of a country singer in his own raw voice, like Mac’s persona, his musical rendition is also mostly touching when he is simply strumming and humming inside his homestead, music should always have its self-pleasing precept before becoming a crowd-pleasing commodity. However, it is utterly remiss that Tess Harper is hardly hailed for her equally brilliant turn (a Golden Globe nomination is the solitary consolation, but she is leading in my book), an immaculate screen debut, her Rose Lee exemplifies a woman who truly understands how to tame a jaded soul and wills herself to stand behind her imperfect husband and support him through the vagaries, it is such a rare performance completely devoid of pretension and self-awareness, her tranquil gaze magnificently rounds off this essential small-tale-with-a-big-heart boon, a slam-dunk melodrama.