Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tender Mercies (1983) - Duvall at his low-key best

Original film poster Tender Mercies 1983
"Tender Mercies" (1983).

"Tender Mercies" (1983), directed by Bruce Beresford from a script by , is a small film. By that I mean, it is a film about an ordinary man with extraordinary talents and his struggles against temptation and fate. Yet it also is extremely powerful, because it captures the rhythm of life at its most challenging. No car chases, no high drama, nothing but a man finally facing up to his life.

Mac teaching Sonny the guitar Tender Mercies 1983
Teaching the boy to play

Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a country singer and songwriter who messed up his life and career through irresponsibility. Penniless and with nowhere to go, he winds up at the run-down home of a single mom, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and her young son Sonny (Allan Hubbard). Having introduced the main characters, the film then traces Sledge's attempts at redemption and recovery, without pretension and with extreme humility. Duvall deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. It is perhaps the most low-key acting job I can remember, something absolutely essential to keep Sledge from becoming a caricature or stereotype. He reminded me of real people I've known, quite a feat considering all the drama the character had been through and the opportunities that still beckon.

Riding in a truck Tender Mercies 1983
A joyous moment in "Tender Mercies."

Ellen Barkin has a wonderful supporting role as Sledge's rebellious daughter. Betty Buckley is a weak spot as Dixie, Mac's obviously bitter and somewhat shrill ex-wife who is still a successful singer. Wilford Brimley helps maintain the low-key atmosphere as Dixie's manager and Mac's guarded friend, conveying a sense of divided loyalties that also is completely believable and sympathetic. Allan Hubbard is perfect as the son, barely registering and managing not to intrude on Mac's story.

Outside under a clear sky Tender Mercies 1983
The clear Texas sky in "Tender Mercies."

I liked it, but it won't knock your socks off. I was surprised to learn that Duvall did his own singing, with original music by George Dreyfus It really does sound sound like him, but I had no idea he was such a fine singer. This film is full of surprises and a low-key delight. Give it a chance when you can.

The trailer is below.


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