1983 / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #336: Tender Mercies (1983)

Robert Duvall is an actor that we’ve encountered a number of times during the course of the blog. First cropping up as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird we’ve since seen him in supporting roles in The Godfather films, The Conversation and Network. However he’s never really featured in a leading capacity that is until Tender Mercies in which Duvall plays the washed-up alcoholic ex-country singer Mac Sledge.

Tender Mercies was a project that Duvall was involved with from an early stage and the role of Mac was allegedly written for him by screenwriter Horton Foote. Duvall would later go on to win his only Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film and in my opinion this was completely deserved. You can tell Tender Mercies is written by a playwright as the majority of it happens in one fixed location and there are only a few overly dramatic events. It begins with Mac waking up in a motel and, unable to pay the bill, agreeing to work for the owner at the neighbouring gas station. Mac and the widowed owner Rosa Lee soon become attracted to each other and later marry with Mac becoming step-father to her adorable son Sonny. Happy with the quiet life he’s found and off the booze, Mac is soon dragged back into the music industry when a journalist arrives asking some questions about his ex-wife Dixie Scott. Dixie has maintained her star power and the pair shares a daughter, Sue Anne who Mac is forbidden from seeing. Soon the article attracts a band of young country singers to come to the motel seeking advice and wondering if Mac will listen to them play at a local bar. Meanwhile, Rosa Lee gets jealous when Mac visits Dixie to enquire over seeing Sue Anne and later gives her a song he’s written. Though there’s one major incident that tests Mac’s new found sobriety and his marriage to Rosa Lee, ultimately this is a rambling film about the dangers of the music industry and the sudden tragedies that life can bring.

Although Horton Foote claims that he didn’t write the part of Sledge directly for Duvall, his friendship with the actor definitely had an overall effect on his creation of the character. Duvall’s performance is really what anchors the film and he makes Mac Sledge someone you want to see succeed in his new quiet life away from the industry. Duvall makes the most of his time in the sun and really captivates the audience in every scene he’s in with his most powerful moments being those including barely any dialogue. He makes Mac a strong-but-silent type whose major weaknesses are song-writing and the love he still has for the daughter he lost due to drinking. Tess Harper is brilliantly natural as Rosa Lee and indeed was cast for that reason having initially auditioned for a minor role in the film. All of the songs written for the film are expertly crafted and really sound like proper country numbers, in particular those performed by Dixie Scott. Tender Mercies also makes the use of its desolate set, a small gas station in West Texas which was chosen due to its lack of surrounding architecture. This is definitely a place that you could believe a reclusive musician would want to settle down in and it makes the outside world seem all the more glitzy whenever we venture outside of the motel. Tender Mercies really doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of but I think that’s okay as it’s definitely more of a character study about how people can change given the right circumstances. Ultimately this was a film that I found easy to watch and one that contained a career-best turn from Robert Duvall who certainly deserved his time in the spotlight.


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