Tender Mercies Reviews
Take the time to relax with this film.
An alcoholic drifter, Mac Sledge (played by Robert Duvall), finds himself in a small Texas town. He gets a job doing handyman work for Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow with a 10-year old son. Over time, a relationship develops between Mac and Rosa Lee and they get married. In due course it is revealed that Mac was a famous country singer with an equally-famous country singing wife, but alcohol ended their marriage and his career. After trying to turn his back on his former life, Mac now tries to reconcile his old life with his new.
Interesting story, with a large emotional content. It doesn't grab you immediately - the setup is quite dry and fairly uneventful - but the movie develops well. Once it builds up a decent degree of momentum it is quite engaging.
Was heading for a very profound conclusion but ends a bit abruptly. Sort of eases out, rather than goes out with a bang. Ending is still quite emotional, but could have been better. A more elaborate and developed conclusion was in order.
Superb performance by Robert Duvall in the lead role (but that is pretty much a given). Flawed, sensitive heroes with large amounts of baggage are his specialty and here he pulls out all the stops. He well deserved his Best Actor Oscar. Surprisingly, considering his incredible talent and some of the amazing performances he has delivered, this was to be his only Oscar win, though he was nominated six other times.
Good support from Tess Harper. Ellen Barkin, in one of her earliest feature film roles, puts in a solid performance as Mac's daughter.1
was very good and deserved the best actor Oscar back in 1984
The tradeoff is that what the characters think and feel is, to go back to this word, pretty simple. It's almost painfully uncomplicated, like a screenwriter's perception of what common, everyday folks' lives are like, but without being accidentally patronizing. The movie has no elitism, no detachment that could hint at superiority: it is warm and forgiving and non-judgmental to its characters, perhaps to a fault in the case of Robert Duvall's protagonist. The movie passes lightly over his history as a domestic abuser, a fact that might not be so uncomfortable if our knowledge of the women in his life were not so filtered through his eyes. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when he is away from home for a day and a night, and his wife and stepson are left to talk to each other. Most of the time, though, we see what he sees in pretty much the way he sees it. Could our perception of the Opry singer who was his ex-wife be limited to "glitzy but troubled" if we saw her in the long years of her single parenthood rather than in the emotionally-fraught circumstances that are the only intersections between her and Duvall's character? Similarly, his young adult daughter is written in a way that says more about him than her, and her arc seems to exist primarily to give him a reason to comment on his arc. She is the quintessential teen trying to grow up too fast in a manner that is thought to add depth to males but bring females to tragedy, just another example of moralistic fiction trope stretching back centuries.
The plotting, then, is unsatisfying, and the characters too. The acting is capable, but it's nothing mold-breaking for Duvall, who nevertheless won an Oscar for it. A generation later, the movie "Crazy Heart" (2009, also featuring Duvall, but in a supporting role) would take the very same subject matter and throw in a few new twists and a couple of big, chewy, Oscary scenes that won its star Jeff Bridges the same award. The music alone is a sufficient reason to watch "Crazy Heart," which did for outlaw and alternative country what "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000) did for American traditional folk. The music in "Tender Mercies" is also worth a listen, especially for fans of classic country in the Nashville and Bakersfield modes. The songs don't quite make it a must-see, but they are highlights of a pleasant enough hour and a half.
Tender Mercies is a bit rushed in pacing at the start. Before even 12 minutes of the story are over, Mac Sledge goes from a washed up alcoholic music singer to a happily married man and the excessive of cuts leaves out a bunch of points in between. The film eventually settles, but it is easy for everything to just rush by the eyes of the viewer because everything just skips by seriously quickly. It's a little ridiculous, so it doesn't give the best start to the film. Eventually it settles down and improves, but for a little while it just does too much in too little time. Once it settles, everything gets better. It settles on a slow and gentle pace, and although the story in the film doesn't break new ground and may be a little slow for some, the organic development of the story is one of its best aspects. The harsh nature of Tender Mercies lies within the characters, not on the surface. And for viewers to feel the film, they have to really look beneath the surface. And the story eventually develops to a point where it is easy to see what is happening. Thanks to the strong script, Tender Mercies takes a meaningful examination of its themes on a realistic level without ever going into melodramatic territory, and it helps to overshadow the thin nature of the plot.
One interesting line in particular is when Mac Sledge reveals how he has been able to deal with his troubled life all along, he says "See, I don't trust happiness. I never did; I never will." as part of a soliloquy questioning why his once sorry existence has been given meaning only to be shattered again. It is at this moment that I realised who Mac Sledge is. He is a cowboy, but not a gun blazing cowboy. He is a retired musician, a man admired for his talents which he refuses to use again while he lives out the rest of his life as a man of stoicism with the wreckage of his past still haunting him. Mac Sledge seems simple on the surface , but it isn't until the end of the film that you realise just how complicated a character he is, and Robert Duvall manages to get the part excellently which reveals how he earned his Academy Award for Best Actor. So Tender Mercies earns a lot from the skilful writing behind it which deservingly earned itself an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay due to the tenderly written and thought provoking nature of its story and its language.
I'm a person who isn't the biggest fan of religion because of all the harm it has caused the world, but Tender Mercies took the themes on gently. It refused to be a religious propaganda film which boasted about how religion was a lot better than atheism or some other belief system. Instead, it simply told a small scale story about how religion improved one man's life as he climbed his way back up from rock bottom and settled down, and it took an unbiased look at the way that it benefits the characters as well as how it causes them to be constantly uncertain. Tender Mercies takes an honest look at the positive and negative aspects of religion, and so it's screenplay is more honest in that way also. The screenplay in Tender Mercies is great simply because of how it touches upon many themes and characters in a meaningful and subtle way, and it is a very easy film to watch which moves along gently for a simple short running time of 92 minutes.
And through mixing a classical film style with a western one, Tender Mercies creates a nice visual style to it. By combining a lot of western scenery with some western cinematography techniques as well as some more classical ones, it establishes its own kind of visual style which is nice. The camerawork is always good at capturing the wide spectacle of things. Many films require a lot of shots to capture the perfect acting talents of their casts which are then edited together rather quickly. In Tender Mercies, the camera instead pulls back and shoots from a slight distance so that all the acting can be seen in extended shots. Tender Mercies' acting is do good that it requires minimal editing to get it right, and the cinematography doesn't even have to zero in on the faces of its actors to achieve the mood. Tender Mercies has a classical feel to it which makes it feel like an older film than it is, almost giving it a sense of wisdom which reflects the kind of passion that Mac Sledge has within him but has become blinded by being haunted by the wreckage of his past and his alcohol problem. The style of the film reflects the mindset of Mac Sledge, and it becomes more quick as things become more intense in his mind. After the rush of the intro, the pace becomes good, and the general feel of the film cements itself well. And from there, viewers are settled and able to appreciate the skill of the cast, particularly Robert Duvall.
Robert Duvall is known for giving performances on many high profile performances in gritty films, so to see him taking on the leading role in such a low key and gentle drama film is terrific. And his performance is restrained. He consistently maintains the stoicism and hidden wisdom of a cowboy archetype, and he generates a really interesting character simply on they story surrounding him. Robert Duvall sucks the viewers in with the complicated mind of his character which he keeps subtle and beneath his surface, and so he captures the role perfectly. Even when he sings he is great because he articulates his voice so perfectly that he sings words like a poet. You can tell that he has a lot of spirit because he puts it into his voice without problem. Robert Duvall's performance in Tender Mercies shows a spiritual side to him, one which is uplifting in its subtlety and easily compelling, and the role of Mac Sledge is one of the most complex and likeable that he has ever portrayed before. Robert Duvall is the best part of Tender Mercies.
Tess Harper's performance as Rosa Lee is also terrific. Consistently capturing the uncertainties that come with being the wife of an alcoholic country singer, Tess Harper creates a character who is very compelling and easy to sympathise for. She creates a very likeable character and shares a complicated chemistry with Robert Duvall which had a lot of romantic passion in it. The kind of dedication that Tess Harper puts into her performance is great because she is a similarly restrained character who has a lot hidden within her, but she projects a very enjoyable persona a which makes her a great counterpart to Robert Duvall. Tess Harper works terrifically in Tender Mercies, and she makes the film more enjoyable and easy to watch.
Betty Buckley's supporting effort is terrific simply because of the kind of emotional tenacity she produces for her character. When she is on stage she sings with a serious passion, but when she is off it she is dedicated to keeping her character's daughter away from her ex-husband. The strength of the hostility that she projects is realistic and affirming to the character which suggests a certain kind of distress caused by Mac Sledge in the relationship and incorporates a further sense of mystery into the film. Betty Buckley is a great supporting actress in Tender Mercies and her chemistry with Robert Duvall is terrific.
Ellen Barkin also gives a fine supporting effort because of her youthful charm and energetic spirit, and Allan Hubbard gives a fine effort too.
All in all, slow and simple, Tender Mercies is a gentle and subtle but dramatically effective western drama anchored by a top performance from Robert Duvall.