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TENDER MERCIES

      

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Duvall deservedly earned his best-actor Oscar for ‘Tender Mercies,’ which holds up marvelously some 37 years after its theatrical debut. If you’re looking for something uplifting that will give you hope during the ongoing pandemic and financial crisis, here it is. If I were compiling a list of my favorite films of all time, this one would be near, if not at, the top. Now it's earned a Blu-ray upgrade from Kino Lorber. My review was published in the Deseret News on June 10, 1983.

“Tender Mercies” is an excellent film likely to be overlooked by summer audiences who want razzle-dazzle escapism — but you won’t find anything better to spend your movie dollars on.

Arriving on the heels of ecstatic reviews, “Tender Mercies” lives up to every shout of praise. But the film itself is quiet, very gentle and low-key. This is real life, with all the day-to-day motions people are led through, with the present linked inseparably to the past and genuine expressions of every emotion as they naturally occur.

Robert Duvall, who also co-produced is Mac Sledge, a former country-western singer who was a singing star in his day but now is reduced to drunken brawls in small towns where no one remembers him.

      

Robert Duvall, left, Tess Harper, Allan Hubbard, 'Tender Mercies' (1984)

We meet Mac when he finds himself stranded in a small Texas motel on a desolate highway. To pay for the motel room in which he’s been unconscious for two days, Duvall does some work for the owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow with a young son (Allan Hubbard).

Gradually they become close and Mac asks Rosa Lee to marry him. She agrees and they lead a quiet life, as Mac gives up the bottle and tries to settle down. Then his ex-wife, Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), comes through town, a singing star whose rise came through Mac’s music years ago. Mac tries to see their daughter (Ellen Barkin) after nearly a decade of absence and Dixie’s hatred for him flares. And later, Mac gets the itch to write and sing again.

“Tender Mercies” is about people, and it makes no attempt to give us extended highs or lows. And because it is so honest and refreshing in its approach it never fails to move us.

This is a “little” film, an even-tempered story told directly, without major plot tragedies or violent shifts in development. Screenwriter Horton Foote (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) obviously knows these people very well and Australian director Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant”) has perfectly captured the bleakness of the landscape, along with its simple beauties. Likewise, the characters here are all people with whom we can identify.

      

Duvall is incredible. There’s no underplaying, no overplaying — in fact it hardly seems like playing at all. It’s as if we’re peering into Mac Sledge’s life with no regard whatsoever that this is an actor in a role. He is so believable, so real, that any thought of his being anyone else is left behind. (Duvall also sings all his own songs, and even wrote some of them.)

The rest of the cast is also remarkable, with Harper, Hubbard, Buckley, Barkin and Wilford Brimley all giving wonderful turns — some in very brief, but memorable roles.

Rated PG for some profanity, “Tender Mercies” is one of those rare things, a movie you immediately want to share with everyone you know.