by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Bruce Beresford
CAST: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin
MY RATING: 8/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 84% Fresh
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  and The Last Picture Show . 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 ) 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.
QUESTION FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
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 , 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.