by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “A Movie that Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay”

PLOT: A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.

Tender Mercies does not feel like a movie that was released the same year as WarGames, Octopussy, and Return of the Jedi.  It has more in common with the spare, character-driven films of the early ‘70s like Five Easy Pieces [1970] and The Last Picture Show [1971].  It’s a movie where not much seems to happen, at least on the surface.  Underneath the barren landscapes and big skies, however, great truths about life and acceptance are on display.

Anchored by an Oscar-winning performance from Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies tells the story of Mac Sledge (Duvall), whom we see at the opening of the film collapsing in a drunken stupor on the losing end of a fight in a rinky-dink roadside motel in rural Texas.  The next morning, broke and abashed, he makes an arrangement with the widowed motel owner, Rosa Lee (Harper): he’ll do odd jobs at the motel for room, board, and $2 an hour.  Rosa Lee’s son 10-year-old son, Sonny, watches this situation unfold impassively and asks Mac some very direct questions: “Did you used to have money?”  “How’d you lose it?”  “You think my dad would’ve liked you?”

The filmmakers (directed by Bruce Beresford, Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]) make some interesting choices for everything that follows.  There is a gentle scene between Mac and Rosa Lee where he shyly asks her, “You ever think about gettin’ married again?”  She says she has.  “Would you ever think about marryin’ me?”  She says she will think about it.  And in the very next scene, it’s made clear that time has passed, they got married, and have been married for several months.  In another film, that kind of “condensed storytelling” would go into the negative column in my book, but not here.  Instead, it feels…right.  We don’t need to show any further details of their courtship, their wedding, Sonny’s feelings about it one way or the other, etcetera.  Those extra scenes would have delayed the narrative structure, showing us things we don’t need to see, but which we can easily deduce.

There’s another scene (I’ll try to tread lightly here) where Mac gives a heartfelt, but still masterfully underplayed, speech to Rosa Lee about how he was in a bad drunk driving wreck years before, and how God saw fit to bring her into his life, but to do so meant her husband had to die, and so on.  “See, I don’t trust happiness.  I never did, I never will.”

When he finished, and Rosa Lee stood there taking it in, in my head, I imagined her replying with something like, “Well, Mac, you don’t have to trust happiness, you just have to trust me”, or “yourself”, or some similarly corny platitude.  Instead, in what must have been superhuman restraint on the part of the screenwriter, Rosa Lee simply stands there, processes what she just heard…and walks offscreen, leaving Mac alone with his thoughts.

That was a big moment for me.  It seemed to me to be a gesture from the filmmakers that this is not a movie about processed dialogue and ancient story arcs and the kind of emotional beats you might expect from a film.  Instead, it felt like I was looking at real people, reacting realistically to real dialogue.  Rosa Lee could have drawn the scene out, but instead she seems to realize there is nothing she can say that will make things better for Mac.  She loves him, but she knows this is something he’ll need to work out for himself, and no amount of sermonizing will help him towards that goal.  It’s a small moment, and it doesn’t occur until late in the film, but it’s this moment that convinced me Tender Mercies had a lot to say in between the pauses and transitional shots of country roads and straight horizons.

There is a lot more to the story, but the film presents very little of it with the kind of forward momentum we’ve come to expect as moviegoers.  Instead, we are treated to new developments almost as if we are intruding on these people and their lives.  Even in a scene at a crowded Opry house where we see Mac’s previous wife, Dixie (Betty Buckley!), belting some good old-fashioned, Parton-esque country tunes, the shot choices and editing still feel almost like we’re voyeurs as we watch Mac listening to one of Dixie’s ballads, then leaving, not quite in disgust, but clearly uncomfortable.  It’s in the aftermath of this concert we get the first solid information on his estranged daughter (Barkin), who would be about 18 years old by now.  Dixie screams at Mac, “She doesn’t remember you!  All she remembers is a mean drunk!”  This scene was so well-realized that I started having flashbacks to some of the fights my own parents got into before their divorce.

I don’t mean to suggest the movie does not have an arc.  It absolutely does.  But Tender Mercies does such a good job of “burying the lead” that I didn’t fully get what the movie wanted to say until the very last scenes featuring two characters tossing a football back and forth.  Mac’s life seems to be back on track.  His music career seems about to be resurrected.  Mac might still have trust issues when it comes to happiness.  Perhaps all we can do is appreciate the small moments of happiness we have while we can.  If sadness or tragedy comes, let it come.  It will hurt for a time, but it will also make those small moments all the more precious.

If that sounds clichéd, well, maybe it is.  Tender Mercies does a much better job of delivering that message than I could ever do, proving once again: a movie is not about what it’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.


Unless you read the script, you can only judge a screenplay by the movie. Based on the movie, do you feel this script deserved the award for Best Screenplay? Explain.
Great question!  For the record, the other nominees that year were the screenplays for The Big Chill, Fanny and Alexander, Silkwood, and WarGames (that last one kinda surprised me).  I am a little surprised Tender Mercies edged out The Big Chill, a movie with far more prominence than this little Texas character study from an Australian director, but I would say Tender Mercies certainly deserved the award based on the movie by itself.  Much like Lost in Translation [2003], the screenplay relies more on silences and context to deliver its message rather than on showy dialogue or melodramatic plot developments (to be fair, there is one sort-of melodramatic plot twist in Tender Mercies, but it’s handled so well it doesn’t play that way).  Sure, Tarantino and Sorkin might deliver high-quality screenplays that are flashier and certainly wordier, but to craft such a high-quality film in such a minimalist style is admirable and deserves recognition.

THE THING (1982)

By Marc S. Sanders

Often, a great beginning to a film offers an intriguing question. So as I finally watched John Carpenter’s 1982 interpretation of The Thing, I was especially curious as to why a sniper aboard a fast moving helicopter was targeting a dog running across the open plains of Antarctica with a pulse pounding beat from legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. The film has me hooked and none of the gory horror to come, compliments of creature effects wizard Rob Bottin, has even presented itself yet.

Gore never did anything for me in horror, and horror has never been my most favorite genre of film. Rather, suspense always held my attention and kept me thinking long after the movie was over. Carpenter’s film is full of Bottin’s imaginative gore but the paranoia and mistrust among a crew of science operatives is the real centerpiece here. Whether it’s the innocence of a dog or the star power of Kurt Russell, I never trusted the narrative of The Thing and that’s the point.

An exceptional scene on the same level as the dinner scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien occurs following a crew man suffering a heart attack. The defibrillator is brought out, “CLEAR” is shouted and the man is zapped. Then something else happens. I won’t spoil the moment. Yet, this is where imagination was put to work; where effects and storytelling work cohesively. Thankfully, moments like these become a running theme throughout The Thing. You never know what to expect from an unmeasurable and incomprehensible enemy. The fact that resources are scarce and escape is impossible traps our characters and the viewer as well.

Convenient, fast learning knowledge only tells you that this entity can duplicate anything it comes in contact with. So, you might just be sidling up to the thing itself and you won’t even know it until it’s too late.

Isolation, lack of trust, fear, paranoia – all of these elements work towards the advantage of superb imagination and storytelling in Carpenter’s piece.

The Thing was always a movie that eluded me. I’m now so grateful to have witnessed it. It makes me yearn for better storytelling in today’s films beyond remakes and superhero exhaustion.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is an absolute must see motion picture. Watch it with friends and watch it with the lights turned off.


By Marc S. Sanders

Sydney Pollack was the first director to take a crack at adapting one of John Grisham’s best-selling books, namely the still most popular novel, The Firm. Wisely, and with a measure of risk, Pollack took the script from David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel and maintained a true adaptation for the first hour of the film while inventing a new kind of second half that I think improves upon Grisham’s story.

Mitchell McDeere (a well cast Tom Cruise) is the most sought after Harvard law graduate in the country. A small Tennessee firm makes an offer to him that outbids any of the big leaguers. Considering that Mitch comes from a poor broken home with a brother (David Strathairn) currently in jail for manslaughter, the offer and treatment given to Mitch and his school teacher wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) could not be more enticing. A house, a car, school loan payoffs, and a near six figure salary in the first year is not something anyone would walk away from.

Once the happy, young couple are comfortable though, a curious FBI man (Ed Harris, an MVP of this stellar cast) inquires if Mitch finds it odd that this firm has four of its lawyers dead within the last ten years. The two most recent casualties perished in a boat accident.

The sharp minded Avery Tolar (another welcome performance from Gene Hackman) is assigned to make sure Mitch follows the path the firm expects of him. Avery also has his sights set on Abby. For a guy who has never been regarded as good looking, Hackman plays a pretty effective flirt.

The firm, led by a seasoned Hal Holbrook with a charming Mark Twain like bow tie, and a perfect henchman villain played by Wilford Brimley (definitely on my top list of best bad guys) are involved with the Mafia and their shady dealings of money laundering, racketeering, murder and embezzlement. Now Mitch is stuck.

The FBI want to use him to uncover the firm’s activities but that risks blowing his career and maybe his and Abby’s life. If he doesn’t cooperate, then the Feds will run him in with the rest of the gang.

A second hour focuses on a complicated way for Mitch to get out of this ordeal. It means a lot of white collar work and contrived timing in the script. Fortunately though, Pollack builds suspense with foot chases and some allies on Mitch’s side, including Holly Hunter as an hourglass figured, bombshell secretary to a private investigator (Gary Busey) that Mitch went to see. His plan involves traveling to and from the Cayman Islands, and making copies of legal documents to build evidence of mail fraud against the firm.

Mail fraud???? That’s right mail fraud. It’s not a sexy crime, but the script with Pollack’s direction and a hard pounding piano soundtrack from Dave Grusin manage to keep the suspense up and alert.

Pollack directs Cruise to sprint across downtown Nashville for some great sights and hideouts in broad daylight. Your adrenaline moves with the film even if you can’t connect all the dots of Mitch’s complex plan.

In fact, it’s best to just give up on following every little step Mitch and his team take to stay ahead of the firm. What works best is the seemingly no win scenario for Mitch and Abby. Pollack follows a Hitchcock trajectory. He leaves the bomb on the table but doesn’t detonate it right away. Thus the suspense holds steady.

So, the best kind of counsel I can give is to just enjoy The Firm as it runs through its paces. It’s a solid white-collar thriller.


By Marc S. Sanders

Maybe more often than not, the films I see about journalism seem to convey the reporters as heroes seeking the truth despite the threats and the strict laws of the first Amendment and so on.  They meet informants in dark garages and outrun speeding cars trying to run them down before the story hits the papers.  They accept being held in contempt of court to avoid revealing a source.  They’re heroes!!!! It’s movie stuff, right?  We’ve seen it all before.  What about films where the newspaper writer gets it wrong from the start, and then sees the ramifications of the recklessness committed?  Absence of Malice, from 1981, is that kind of picture.

Sally Field is a hungry thirty something reporter named Megan Carter with connections in the Miami prosecutor’s office.  When she gets a whiff of a story that implies a man named Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is the prime suspect in the disappearance of union head, she runs with it and her editor is happy to make it front page news.  However, just because Mr. Gallagher is the son of a deceased and reputed bootlegger with mob connections doesn’t make him guilty of anything.  Also, has an investigation into his affairs even begun to happen yet?  Just because it walks like a duck, well….

Sydney Pollack goes pretty light on a serious subject matter here.  It’s just awful to see a film legend like Newman be a cold blooded killer.  Worse, it’s beyond reason to see Sally Field as a woman without scruples.  They’re too likable.  So, Pollack with Kurt Luedtke’s Oscar nominated screenplay, play it safe.  Forty years ago, when this film came out, I might have accepted what’s on the surface with Absence of Malice.  Today, however, I appreciate the conundrum, but the residual effects offered up by the film never seem to carry much weight.  The stress doesn’t show enough on Newman and Field.  A suicide of another pertinent character hardly seems monumental to either of them.  Heck, there’s even time for romance between the two leads despite the slander committed by one against the other.  Another film by Pollack, Three Days Of The Condor, committed this same mistake.  It’s hard to accept a romantic angle when the characters barely know each other and what they do know of one another is hardly favorable for each of them.  I can imagine the marketing campaign for this ahead of the film’s release.  If you got “Blue Eyes” and “The Flying Nun” in a film together, well then, they gotta hook up and never, ever make them ruthless.  Audiences would hate that!!!!

The film reserves the shiftiness of the situation for other actors in the film like Bob Balaban.  He certainly plays the part well as a manipulator in search of a guilty party, even if it means indicting an innocent person.  The best surprise is the appearance of Wilford Brimley in the big close out scene who sums what has occurred and then lays out who is responsible for what and who is not responsible.  It’s the best written role in the film and it reminds me what a shame it is that Brimley did not get any Oscar recognition during his career.  (I still say he was one of the greatest unsung villains in film for his turn in Pollack’s The Firm.)

Even the soundtrack music from Dave Grusin feels inappropriate here.  It’s too energetic and full of life with piano and trumpets.  When you consider the term “absence of malice” and what it means to a reporter questioning her journalistic integrity, and then furthermore what significance it has to a newspaper article’s bystander, it seems to hold a lot of weight with disastrous repercussions.  Grusin’s music says otherwise.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and watch Paul Newman, and Sally Field in her early career.  These are great actors.  They do fine here, but the material is not sharp enough for what they can do.  They’re too relaxed.  On the other hand, the subject matter is perfect for heightened movie drama.  I can only imagine what Sidney Lumet would have done with this picture, considering films like Network, Serpico and The Verdict.  The execution of Pollack’s film simply does not live up to the terrible dilemma of an innocent man being publicly smeared.  Think about it.  At the end of Absence of Malice, I don’t think the intent is to wish and hope and yearn for Paul Newman and Sally Field to sail away on his beautiful boat into the sunset.  Yet, that’s what Pollack and Luedtke seem to have left us with.