Old 06-18-2009, 06:16 PM
Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies

Tender Mercies (1983)

Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies" is presented as a kind of character study, but chooses a very strange way in which to study them. Instead of letting the background of the characters come out naturally, the writer, Horton Foote, felt it necessary to come up with a different approach, which I will explain later. The fact that he had to come up with such a weak approach begins to explain why this film didn't leave much of an impact.

Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) wakes up one day at a motel in the middle of Texas. As he is broke, he decides to work off what he owes to the owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper). While working there, he gets to know her and her little boy, Sonny (Allan Hubbard), and eventually gets married to Rosa Lee. Because of a news reporter, word gets around town that Mac was a famous country music star until he lost everything in his life due to being an alcoholic, including his wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) who divorced him and his daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin) who has been forbidden to see him. However, both of them turn back up in his life, leading him to try and rekindle his relationship with his daughter.

This is the film that Robert Duvall finally won an Oscar for after having been nominated three times before (he's even gotten two more nominations after). The performance is pretty good, but I wouldn't say it's nearly his strongest. He plays Mac mostly low key, never speaking a whole lot, but not really being shy either. He's very soft-spoken and respectful as he gets to know Rosa Lee and her son.

The one scene where I can clearly see why he earned the Oscar for this performance comes near the end of the film. He is tending a garden while talking to Rosa Lee about why certain things happen while others don't, which peaks with the famous line "I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will." The way in which he delivers this speech is heartbreaking and filled with emotion that hadn't been very noticeable throughout the rest of the film.

The other Oscar that this filmed received was for its screenplay, written by Horton Foote, most famous for his other Oscar-winning script, an adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird. It was odd that the Academy chose this screenplay to award the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to as the screenplay is what was particularly weak about this film.

To return to that method Foote chose of informing us about the characters, throughout the first two-thirds or so of the film, the three main characters have scenes that felt more like Q & A sessions than actual scenes. Some of these had Sonny asking a million questions about his father and Mac. This was a really weak way of putting the background information out there.

Even though the background material is eventually brought to light, we are never really told very much about the characters, at least, not enough to form any kind of attachment to them. Some of the characters, particularly Mac's wife and daughter, were left so underdeveloped, that it scarcely made a difference what happened to them. This is probably why the tragedy near the end of the film has no emotional impact.

Six years later, director Bruce Beresford would go on to make what is probably his most famous and best work, "Driving Miss Daisy," which ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture that year, which it very much deserved. His direction for "Tender Mercies" is very simple, but shows us everything that we need to see.

The story had its moments, though it certainly could have been stronger. I can't claim to be a fan of country music, but I don't hold that against it (I actually enjoyed Altman's "Nashville"). It's just that the characters needed more development and more interesting dialogue to say to each other. That scene I mentioned earlier between Mac and Rosa Lee in the garden is a mere glimpse at how good this film could have been. 2.5/4 stars.
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