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Tender Mercies  

Robert Duvall has filled a number of great roles during his career, from Tom Hagan in The Godfather, to a Presbyterian preacher in The Apostle, to one of the amoral television executives in Network. His role in the 1982 film Tender Mercies is another fine role.

Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a country singer, no longer even the modest success he once was, who now finds himself drinking and out of cash. He happens to stay at a small motel out in the middle of nowhere, a place owned by a young woman whose husband was killed in Vietnam before their first child was even born. He is able to get a job at the motel, mainly pumping gas. At the same time, he and the woman develop a bond, and before you know it, they are married.


What ensues is something very unusual in the annals of film romantic pairings. There is none of the passion that we would see in a standard Hollywood romance. In fact, there is only one brief moment that includes anything approaching physical. Most movies, naturally, want us to see lovers present outward appearances of such a relationship (a lot of kissing, embracing, so on and so forth), but Tender Mercies does not give us those moments. Connected with such moments would be lots of emotional speeches, melodrama, and conflicts, attached to the love story. These moments don`t exist either. There is a scene in which Duvall`s character experiences another down moment, and takes off for the entire evening, seriously considering getting drunk like he used to do. The woman does not wander around the house weeping and sobbing, wondering where he is, and what`s happened to him. She wonders all right, but her demeanor is very calm. And when he does return very late in the evening, there is no big explosion either. The woman basically sees that he is all right; that the anger has passed; that he was able to be strong and not succumb to alcohol again. So she offers him a bowl of soup.

The quiet which exists in the romance exists in the film`s other elements. Yet, this actually works in the film`s favor. The viewer gets to experience real life, in a place which is as remote from Hollywood, or any other major center, as possible. All of the events take place in the middle of nowhere, with simple country folk, who like country music, and who feel quite privileged to have a man who "used to be" Mac Sledge living in their community. Besides the romance, we also get Sledge`s relationship with his daughter and ex-wife, as well as a slow attempt to get back some semblance of a singing career. All this is done in a very low-key as well.

Duvall is certainly very good here. He is able to toss out his usual vocal mannerisms and speak in a much less "sophisticated" cadence. Mac is country folk, like the others around him. He is a simple, mostly humble man, who does not present himself as regretful of not being a big shot like his ex became. At the same time, though, Mac does want to feel that he matters to the people around him; his wife and her son, as well as to himself. He wants to be able to believe that he has some songs, and inspiration, left in him, which is why he eventually accepts an offer from a local band who are ardent admirers of his.

For those looking for action-packed dramatics, this is not the place to go. But if you are patient, and want to see something unique and believable, Tender Mercies is certainly a nice, warm production to view.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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