Tender Mercies (1983, Bruce Beresford)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Frankly, I thought I was way past the point in the Best Screenplay runthrough when I could expect to discover any hidden gems, but this low-key story of an alcoholic country star reforming his life strongly resonated with me. Its bid at commercial appeal — which did not succeed, alas — comes from its wispy associations with Nashville narratives like Coal Miner’s Daughter, but it’s much more of a calm tone poem than its more dramatic brethren. Australian director Bruce Beresford memorably explores Texas, fractured masculinity and even religion and casts a surprisingly touching spell.

Tender Mercies is basically a sustained, elegant slice of life that doesn’t have any specific direction or purpose except to show how a decent person rolls with changes and finds basic satisfaction and grace in a modest life after briefly attaining (unseen by us) heights of fame and fortune. Robert Duvall was deservedly praised for his rugged, nuanced underplaying in the lead role as Mac Sledge, but the performances are uniformly good (with the sole exception of a miscast Ellen Barkin as Mac’s troubled daughter). That Duvall plays a musician is almost incidental to what ends up happening, or rather what doesn’t end up happening: this is a movie that functions very deliberately by omission. For instance, when Mac has the opportunity to record what may become a comeback hit record, screenwriter Horton Foote is all but completely disinterested in how that move will play in the world or in Mac and his family’s own lives — his focus is on how the idea of being given another chance falls on Mac himself, how it alters (or doesn’t alter) his mindset and contentment.

For a film in which very little “happens,” this is impressively paced. Its respect and absence of condescension toward rural life and people — and by extension, the values and routines those people hold dear — is restrained and low-key but very apparent. It will remind modern viewers of not just the obvious brethren — Paris, Texas and Bagdad Cafe, both sincere and beautiful films about America from the same period made by non-Americans, and inevitably, Melvin and Howard — but The Best Years of Our Lives and Boyhood: films that find fascination and joy in the comings and goings of normal life. The one false note struck comes toward the end, when a sort of Hollywood-ish bit of maudlin Plot comes briefly into play, but even this serves to underline the movie’s point, which I think can be pinned down to an exchange from Renoir’s The River:

“We go on as if nothing happened!”
“No. We go on.”

Surprisingly enough (I am an avowed Driving Miss Daisy hater), Beresford treats this with appropriate subtlety and captures the considerable beauty of humble homes and Texas landscapes with nearly the agility of Wim Wenders. The awareness of music and its importance in day to day life is among the loveliest grace notes in a film full of such things. Even the Baptism sequence is convincing and oddly moving. A lot of these things may not seem so effective until you’ve spent some time throwing the movie around in your head, but it’s so focused on just treating these small, searching moments with the importance they’d attain in real life that nearly everything Beresford and Foote choose to show us ultimately becomes deeply affecting as we come to know the three vital characters in this makeshift family.

Aside from the aforementioned climactic injection, the only criticisms I really have are that the film’s missing the note of levity and even absurdity that could have made it masterful on a level with Demme’s Melvin, which it otherwise so closely resembles as to invite suspicion. Its humorlessness is somewhat countered by the mild ebullience of things like the fleeting glances of that dance between Mac and his wife (Tess Harper) after he sings in public for the first time in years. Lastly, the music cue that plays underneath an otherwise perfect ending is truly dire — couldn’t we have let Duvall sing another one for the credits?

I was genuinely caught offguard by Tender Mercies — it’s warm but tough, and achingly real, which is more and more an aspect of films I find myself drawn to. It can be found for $5 or less at Amazon and I’d suggest it’s well worth the gamble.

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