Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Horton Foote
Starring Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilfred Brimley, Ellen Barkin and Allan Hubbard
The career of Robert Duvall is a queer one. He’s been in movies for more than 50 years, been a part of some of the greatest movies of all time – The Godfather, Apocalypse Now – and starred in a bunch of others. Despite this, he’s never actually been a star. Sure, he’s had financially successful films, but those seem more a product of the individual film and not Duvall’s ability to open one. After all, of his three most prominent leading roles – The Great Santini, The Apostle and Tender Mercies – only one made any money and that was because it had a modest budget, not because it actually made money. And if we’re honest, the greatest part he ever played – Augustus McRae in Lonesome Dove – was in a TV miniseries, where the viewer had to pay nothing.
The truth is, Duvall is the consummate character actor, which is probably the highest compliment an actor can get. After all, he parlayed that into a 50-year career on screen, which is the only thing that matters.
What’s It About?
A washed-up drunk (Duvall) is stranded at a roadside motel in rural Texas. With few options, he is taken in by the kindly widow (Harper) who owns the motel. Eventually, he gives up drinking, forms a bond with the widow’s young son, and marry’s the widow.
Later, the drunk is revealed to be a once-famous country singer, who drank away his fame, and his marriage to a still-famous country singer (Buckley).
In the end, the drunk is humbled and finds peace with the widow, and even achieves modest success in music again.
Was it any good?
The best way to describe Tender Mercies is unfussy and gentle. Despite the drama that could be played from the premise – it truly has a sad-sack country song plot – the film eschews melodrama, keeping the emotions quiet. And in it’s way, the film actually plays a lot like a forerunner to a movie like Boyhood – no, it’s not shot over a number of years to take advantage of the actors aging. Rather, it’s that it’s most dramatic moments are basically off-screen – we do not see the wedding, we do not see the death, we do not even really see the success. We see no milestones. We only get the poetry of the in-between moments.
On the whole, the performances are terrific. Duvall won the Oscar, and while he isn’t showy, he is genuine. He is real.
Equally great is Harper – she easily could have gotten lost in the thankless role of the widow, but she is strong in an unshowy way and is never overpowered, or outmatched, by Duvall. Her performance looks lived-in, and when she betrays her true emotions, even slightly, you feel it.
Better than the acting is the singing. Unlike other movies about musicians – particularly Nashville – where much of the ‘good’ singing and ‘good’ music is lousy, you can believe both Duvall and Buckley would have been country stars. For Duvall, he has a voice in the mold of Hank Williams – high and thin and maybe a bit nasal, like a dozen other singers. And Buckley can belt them out with the best of them, quite in keeping with the music of the time.
The direction might be the only thing I struggled to quantify, given it’s subtle to a fault – it would be easy to look at it and say it doesn’t seem like the movie was directed at all. Still, while the camerawork and staging is never self-conscious, the film is composed to emphasize the smallness of rooms, or the wide-open spaces around the motel, showing just how isolated everybody is, and how intensely dependent on one another they are. Also, rather than hide the lines and age in Duvall’s face, the director puts them front and center. In that way you can feel Duvall’s weariness, you can feel the struggles.
At the end of the day, the film is directed as it should be.
I’ve already invoked Boyhood as a comparison to Tender Mercies, but the truth is Tender Mercy’s would work better as the sequel The Last Picture Show never had. Sure, that film already had a sequel – Texasville – and while I didn’t see the movie I did read the book, and given it seemed to exist in another reality from the world of The Last Picture Show, there was no point bothering with the movie. The only thing you need know is Picture Show and Tender Mercies tread similar ground and one of those films plays as a lovely extension of the other.
My Favorite Scene
I’ll be honest, seeing Duvall throwing around the football with the widow’s kid at the end of the film, after the boy’s decided he likes Duvall just fine as a daddy, made it a little dusty in the room for me– if my wife weren’t sitting there and I wasn’t cowed by stupid ideas about masculinity, it might’ve gotten even dustier. That said, that scene made me want to grab my kid and drag him outside to throw around the football, even though it was late-January and cold and my kid hates football.
Better than Best
Tender Mercies had a real shot at Best Picture – a better shot than you’d think. Of the five nominated films for Best Picture that year, only three had a corresponding Best Director nod – one of those being Tender Mercies. And given that prior to 1983 only one film won Best Picture without it’s director also being nominated – Grand Hotel – you’d be led to believe Tender Mercies had a one-in-three shot at the top prize. Of course, as Beresford would later direct Driving Miss Daisy to a Best Picture win, without him being nominated for Best Director, it’s best not to overstate the film’s chances. Still, it had a better-than-average shot.
To me, the actual winner, Terms of Endearment is middling – it is overwrought and annoying and did everything wrong that Tender Mercies did right. By that metric, Tender Mercies is indeed better than the best. That said, it wasn’t actually best itself. In a year with The Right Stuff, Silkwood, Return of the Jedi and my personal favorite, Wargames, Tender Mercies ranks as no better than the fifth best picture of the year.
Look for Paul Gleason, better known as the principal from The Breakfast Club, to show up for a scene as the reporter who outs Mac’s (Duvall’s) prior fame.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.