Oscar-winner Robert Duvall and Tess Harper shine in a soft-spoken, big-hearted ode of redemption
There’s a certain skill in creating a country music film that parcels out its songs like closely guarded secrets — much like the real secrets held by each of the strong-hearted but soft-spoken characters of Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies.
The Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote follows former singing superstar Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) as he wins the heart of widowed backroads motel owner Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and quits his rampant alcoholism. Just when Mac’s settled down, though, his past — in the form of his still-famous ex-wife (Betty Buckley) and his estranged daughter (Ellen Barkin) — returns like a specter on a never-ending tour. Foote’s script, running at a taut 90 minutes, runs at a clip of intriguing character reveals and tension-loaded silences — from withholding the fact that Mac’s even a country star until 20 minutes into the film, to the slow reveal of Mac’s estranged relationships (and even Rosa Lee’s widowed past) throughout the course of the film.
Tender Mercies seems to dance around the periphery of the film one would rather expect it to be. It’s a film with country music, but isn’t a country music film. It’s a film about recovery from personal demons that plays through the bulk of its alcoholism recovery tropes within the first 10 minutes. It’s as if Beresford and Foote do their utmost to resist the siren call of more bombastic plot developments — because they recognize just how earth-shaking some of the characters’ decisions are in their own right, from the choice to begin recording again to Rosa Lee’s acceptance of Mac as the father figure he never had (as well as what Mac never really got the chance to be himself).
As such, this quiet film about slow-earned redemption and forgiveness retains an unusual power over its audience — you’re never quite sure where you should let your sympathies lie with Mac. But Foote, Beresford, and Duvall know that’s part of the flip-side of redemption — how much we know about someone plays into our capacity for forgiveness, of attachment — which makes Mac’s transformation and self-forgiveness all the more compelling to watch.
Anchoring it all are the sincere performances by fellow Oscar-winner Duvall and Tess Harper. Harper refuses to let Rosa Lee play as a tragic victim of circumstance, infusing her with a steadfast grit that Mac sees as a beacon towards his own recovery, while at the same time reckoning with the challenges she must contend with and the secrets she must keep as a single mother. I’ve known Duvall more from his more outspoken or dramatic work — Apocalypse Now, The Godfather series, and THX-1138 — but damn, if this isn’t a great performance. Mac is a heartfelt yet bitter man — unsure of his own right to walk the Earth. He treats each kind gesture with suspicion — not of whoever’s offering it to Mac, but endlessly questioning why it would be offered to him in the first place. But Duvall and Harper both allow each other the freedom to coax that more vulnerable side out of one another. Coupled with Foote’s screenplay, the natural chemistry that blossoms between Mac and Rosa Lee as a result makes Tender Mercies more than live up to its title.
Kino Lorber presents Tender Mercies in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with an accompanying 2.0 Mono sound mix. English subtitles are presented for the main feature. Picture quality is consistently warm throughout the feature, with a welcome amount of film grain and minimal dust/artifacting which overall accentuates Tender Mercies’ middle-of-nowhere Texan setting. While the transfer doesn’t seem to be a new restoration, picture quality does manage to preserve a healthy amount of detail, from wilted fields to chipping paint. Audio for a mono mix is slightly muffled yet retains a vibrant twang, especially when it comes to the film’s country soundtrack.
- Audio Commentary by critic and author Simon Abrams.
- Miracles and Mercies: An archival documentary featuring interviews with director Bruce Beresford, writer/co-producer Horton Foote, and stars Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, and Allan Hubbard.
- Trailers for Tender Mercies and True Confessions.
Tender Mercies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.