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TENDER MERCIES: A Tribute in the Form of a Review

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The "perfect film". ()

The “perfect film”. (Source)

I haven’t delved into my personal life much on this blog, yet as sure as I’ve written every word myself, you can be sure each word came from sensibility as unique as yours, shaped, as all sensibilities are, by the people and places and experiences which make up a life. One’s mother, it is often assumed, is a major influence on one’s tastes, experiences, morality, and overall character. Such was the case for me.

8 days ago–October the 20th–my mother passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. While, especially in retrospect, the fact that her time was running short was sadly apparent, it was still something of a shock that she went from living her life as usual (within the constraints imposed on her by her weakened condition, which were not enough to stop her from going to work), to losing her strength, then her consciousness, and then finally her life, in so short a timespan. Tuesday she went to work; Friday she went to the hospital; Monday (in the wee hours) she passed away.

Now, she was not quite the film buff I or my father am, but she liked movies, and there were a few she frequently cited as favorites. Two of them, Excalibur (arguably the greatest Arthurian film) and Never Cry Wolf (an amazingly beautiful portrait of life in the Arctic), I had previously seen and well admired. But she held Tender Mercies in exceptional regard; she would often say it was simply a “perfect” film. And with her passing, it seemed to me that the best tribute I could offer would be to review it, since I’d never seen it. That meant pushing back a number of other posts–but I think I can allow it.

Now, do I think Tender Mercies is a perfect film? No. But it is a sweet, unpretentious, thoughtful little look at lives in a minor key, a film which overcame its own obstacles to win two Oscars (Best Actor for Robert Duvall and Best Original Screenplay for Horton Foote). That it has since fallen somewhat into obscurity is a shame, but thanks to Mom, I was hardly ignorant of it. And it’s an oddly appropriate choice for this occasion, as I’ll explain.

Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a washed-up country singer who finds himself penniless and hungover in a roadside inn in rural Texas. The owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), is a Vietnam War widow with a young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Mac asks to work off his debt to Rosa Lee, and she agrees, provided he not drink while he works. He agrees, and before long he asks to stay on and keep working for room and board. She allows him to, and they quickly grow close and marry. Mac starts writing songs again, and decides to deliver one of them (basically a love song to Rosa Lee) to his ex-wife Dixie Rose (Betty Buckley), whose career has flourished. Dixie, embittered by Mac’s abuse of her in the past, orders him to stay away from her and their teenage daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Through Harry (Wilford Brimley), she rejects the song, and the frustrated Mac almost resumes drinking, but does not.

Meanwhile, a local band who admires Mac greatly has begun dropping by, and Mac decides to let them play his new music, but when their label asks that he perform the vocals, he does, and produces his first single in (probably) years. Sue Anne visits him of her own accord, and they seem willing to put the past behind them. Mac is baptized at Rosa Lee’s church, and Sue Anne elopes with one of Dixie’s band members. Dixie is enraged and assumes Mac is concealing her whereabouts as a means of spiting her. Sue Anne visits Rosa Lee and hints that their situation is precarious, but when Rosa Lee offers to let them stay with her and Mac, she leaves without accepting. Not long after, word comes that Sue Anne was killed in a car accident caused by her husband’s drunk driving.

Mac tells Rosa that he had been in a near-fatal car accident years earlier, and doesn’t understand how he survived and Sue Anne did not. Sonny asks Rosa Lee how his father died, and she replies that no one knows for sure. Sonny goes outside with a football Mac had gifted him, and the two play catch as Rosa Lee watches.

"Were you really Mac Sledge?" "Yes, ma'am, I guess I was." ()

“Were you really Mac Sledge?”
“Yes, ma’am, I guess I was.” (Source)

It’s Mac’s climactic monologue that, to me, makes the film so resonant at this time:

I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk, and I ran off the side of the road and I turned over four times. And they took me out of that car for dead, but I lived. And I prayed last night to know why…I lived and she died. But I got no answer to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothin’ about a blessed thing.

I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, married me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in the war…my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why?

See, I don’t trust happiness. I never did and I never will.

My transcription can’t capture the dialect, the pauses, the emotions and inflections that Duvall applies. And on one hand, it doesn’t encapsulate my feelings. I know now that she realized that time was running out for her, that she was in pain, that so many of the parts of life we take for granted were being denied her due not only to the ravages of cancer, but of its treatment. I do not find myself asking “why”–why she is gone is all too clear.

But there’s more to it than that. Mac is reflecting on the randomness of fate, the chaos which we attempt to control, or at the very least understand, but cannot. And though his faith has perhaps helped him to find the inner peace which had long eluded him, it has not helped Mac to understand why the things that happen happen. Why Rosa Lee took him in rather than kicking him out. Why Sue Anne died and he lived. Why anything has happened.

It’s not a religious film in the generally understood sense of the word. In fact, after Sonny and Mac are baptized (in the same service), they comment on how they neither look nor feel especially different. Mac never prays on screen, and none of his newer songs are of a noticeably devotional nature. The closest he comes is recounting a Christian lullaby he sang to Sue Anne as a baby. But what he does know is love–love for Rosa Lee and Sonny, love for his daughter, even a kind of love for Dixie, as much as she hates him.

The wonderfully evocative European poster, which I have a copy of. ()

The wonderfully evocative European poster, which I have a copy of. (Source)

And love is what really rests at the heart of Tender Mercies. The title comes from Rosa Lee, who speaks of the “tender mercies” she thanks God for, citing Sonny and Mac as the foremost of these. The idea of God’s grace as a mercy, rather than as a quantified reward for goodness, is what goes through Rosa’s mind as she watches Mac and Sonny playing football at the end, knowing that a tragedy, wholly unexpected, totally unrelated to virtue or sin, could take her son or husband from her, as surely as a random car accident cost Sue Anne her life, though Mac survived such a crash decades before.

And I could fairly wonder why my mother died when she did–why not when her cancer first struck, or when it first returned (and, as I later learned, was declared incurable, thought not untreatable), or when she was sent to the hospital after a particularly potent form of chemotherapy made her so severely ill? For that matter, why did she not live to see my next birthday? Or Christmas? Was it a tender mercy, so to speak, that she did not suffer longer, or lasted as long as she did? Her religious beliefs had her answering to God and God alone, and what she prayed for in regards to herself I do not know.

Did she thank God for tender mercies? God only knows. But like Rosa Lee, she was loving and patient. She could be fearsomely aggrieved against those who failed in their professional duties or slighted her, but at the same time she was profoundly sympathetic to those who struggled with substance abuse, mental illness, social ostracism, and so on. At one point, Mac goes off in a huff, and buys a bottle of liquor which he discards unconsumed, but does not come home until late at night, and Rosa Lee neither loses her temper nor issues any ultimatum (then or at any point in the film). She asks if he wants something to eat.

And that, ultimately, is the happiness Mac finds–or, maybe rediscovers is a better way of putting it. We don’t really know how Mac came to be an alcoholic, or how he came to be at Rosa Lee’s inn. We know he beat Dixie and once even attempted to kill her, and there are moments where we see flickers of anger breaking through his taciturn exterior. But Rosa Lee’s love has brought him to a gentler state; Sue Anne notes the change in him, and when he sees the distraught Dixie after Sue Anne’s death, she seems to understand that Mac is not the man he once was.

Some may find it problematic that Mac never really apologizes for his past wrongs, except by trying to make his present life a good one. That Dixie is shown to be angry and vindictive may not help, but is the film really trying to justify, however obliquely, Mac’s actions? Or is it suggesting that Dixie must find her own peace before she can come to terms with Mac’s past wrongs, and that the loss of Sue Anne may lead her to re-evaluate her outlook? I’m not sure. That particular aspect of the film may take additional viewings to fully comprehend. (I intend to see it again.)

Her screen debut, believe it or not. ()

Her screen debut, believe it or not. (Source)

So far, I have said little about the actual quality of the film. I’ve generally held that a film which induces me to talk about its themes at length is probably a pretty good film, but I’m not interested in trying to grade Tender Mercies. I likely will on my next viewing, but for now, I’ll set aside the quantification and focus on my feelings. I could be snarky and cite how my mother (who was a newswriter and covered all local theater productions) never wrote a bad review for a play, lest she discourage the artists; rather, if she was unsatisfied, she would simply describe the performance. But I was not unsatisfied. I am, however, not approaching the film with my most objective frame of mind. You understand, I’m sure.

What impressed me initially about Tender Mercies was how stripped-down it was. I assumed Mac’s proposal to Rosa Lee came closer to the halfway mark, if not near to the end of the film. Instead, he pops the question 13 minutes into the 92-minute film. And what is shown and not shown is often counterintuitive; Mac and Rosa Lee’s wedding, Sue Anne’s wedding, and any scenes with Sue Anne’s husband are all omitted. On the other hand, we have a couple of scenes with Sonny talking to his peers about their respective fathers (in one of them, a schoolmate expresses a hope that his mother not marry her alcoholic boyfriend; meanwhile, Mac and Rosa Lee dance happily), and exactly why Foote or director Bruce Beresford included these scenes is not immediately apparent.

Foote’s script is so dialed-down it’s hard to judge on a first viewing. In terms of dialogue, it’s pretty unadorned (Mac’s monologue cited above is about the longest single speech in the whole thing), but the characters are sufficiently rounded to keep from falling into archetype. Did Foote deserve the Oscar? I honestly can’t say just yet. Of the other nominees, only Fanny and Alexander seems like a strong contender (unless you want to go with WarGames). But it’s a thoughtful, heartfelt script, one which stands as a sort of halfway point between the very bleak, very 70s Payday (which I mean to write a proper review of someday) and Crazy Heart (which I’ve never actually seen) in the country music cinema continuum. I can certainly support its win.

Beresford’s direction was also nominated (he would later direct Driving Miss Daisy, one of the very few films to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination), and despite the reputed on-set clashes between him and Duvall, he does do a fine, unpretentious job with it. I wouldn’t say he outdid his work on Breaker Morant (great film, that), but for sentimental reasons, I can support the nomination. He gives the film what it needs; it’s simple and quiet enough that it doesn’t compromise the material, but with enough flair to keep from becoming tedious. The nomination is quite acceptable.

Mom always held Robert Duvall in extremely high esteem among actors for the totality with which he could disappear into a role. And here, he disappears quite thoroughly into the role of Mac, developing a weary drawl so convincing the few moments when his regular voice slips out (especially when Mac loses his temper) are rather jarring. Again, it’s a hard performance to judge objectively because A. it had been built up so thoroughly for me, and B. it’s such an understated piece of work. Certainly the illusion was never broken for me. I could perhaps say I objectively preferred his work in the Godfather films or in the underrated The Great Santini, but even then, the very accomplishment of his work here is a testament to his skill as an actor and further justifies his winning the Oscar. (I’ve seen none of the other nominated performances, but…)

Tess Harper, however, did not get an Oscar nomination (she was nominated for Supporting Actress by the Globes, but Rosa Lee is unquestionably a lead, and perhaps the Academy was hesitant to nominate an unknown¹ (it was her debut). Too bad, since she gives a tender, unaffected performance. Most iterations of this story would force an ultimatum scene, or play up her saintliness, but Harper keeps the role well-grounded; her interactions with Hubbard feel agreeably natural and familial. It’s hard to say a lot about her, other than she, like Duvall, is believable throughout, and warmly sympathetic. Some of that is due to Foote’s writing, but Harper doesn’t miss a beat that I noticed.

Hubbard never made another film before or after Tender Mercies, but he’s quite solid (as American child actors go), his inquisitive nature reminding me of my own childhood queries. His delivery is occasionally a little obvious (particularly in the scenes with other children), but for the most part he feels quite natural (much more so than Brandon deWilde’s often shrill work in Shane, which I’d just watched), and he has strong chemistry with Duvall and Harper Atoo bad Ellen Barkin really only has two scenes as Sue Anne; she has a low-key sweetness that plays well off Duvall’s politely taciturn nature. Buckley is appropriately dramatic and diva-ish as Dixie, though her scene of grief near the end feels a little over-the-top. Brimley adds his usual homespun charm.

Russell Boyd’s cinematography captures the dust, the endless expanses of the Texan countryside, and the cozy interiors with equal skill. His work is in keeping with the rest of the film: dialed down, yet effective in its own simple way. The film is not a technical marvel by any means (and the accents make some of the dialogue a bit tough to understand), but it is all of a piece, so to speak.

There’s no score, but there are plenty of songs, from the Oscar-nominated “Over You” (sung by Dixie) to “If You’ll Hold the Ladder”, the song Mac writes for Dixie and ends up singing himself. Duvall wrote several of his own songs, and seems to have done a pretty good job with them; the music as a whole represents, for me at least, the last era of really great country, the sort of rock-ish country of the 8os which was ultimately superseded by the glorified pop of more recent years. The music is quite strong throughout, and looked at now, it evokes a kind of nostalgic warmth.

That Tender Mercies escaped obscurity at all is something of a miracle. After its troubled production, it was given a fairly half-hearted release (though it ultimately grossed almost twice its budget), and the studio did not make much of an Oscar push for it. But it broke through, won Duvall his only Oscar to date, and doubtless cleared any remaining debts on home video. And my folks saw it, and my mother fell in love with it. And now, I too was charmed by it. Do I think it’s perfect, as she claimed? Well…again, I’d say I agree with her more where Excalibur is concerned (God, that movie is awesome), but I see it.

I see how it could touch you, move you with its portrait of love and goodness, resonate with you down through the decades. If you hadn’t guessed yet, it was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture (it lost to Terms of Endearment), and setting aside sentimental reasons, I’m glad it got nominated. This kind of film too often gets overlooked. It’s always nice to see a nice little film get some attention.

I don’t know what else to say. I’ll let Mac say the rest:

¹She was ultimately nominated 3 years later for Crimes of the Heart.

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2 thoughts on “TENDER MERCIES: A Tribute in the Form of a Review

  1. Pingback: 100 Films I Most Need to See (UPDATED) | If you want the gravy...

  2. Pingback: The Films of 2016, in 100 Words or Less: Part VII | If you want the gravy...

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