Plot: Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) was once a country music star, writing and performing for legions of fans and helping his then wife Dixie (Betty Buckley) rise to high levels of fame as well. But as Sledge’s star began to dim, he turned to alcohol and his marriage dissolved. He was angry and violent, even trying to kill Dixie at one point and in the wake of that divorce, he sank even lower. Far from the bright lights and adoring fans, he would find work at a remote motel and gas station, doing chores around the place for the owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper). He would find some solace in his work there and in Rosa Lee, as well as her young son. Mac and Rosa Lee would fall in love and even wed, but he still struggled with his demons and was haunted by his past. Even so, he vows to stop drinking and be a good man to them both, to make the best of the life they’ve built and not let his demons return. But can he hold true to those promises, even as his past begins to return in various ways?
Entertainment Value: I’d rank Tender Mercies next to some of the best films ever made, as it is an absolute masterpiece of cinema. The formula here is simple enough, with a grounded, powerful narrative populated with talented performers and directed with immense skill. No flash, no special effects, no razzle dazzle, just high level filmmaking that shines brighter than a diamond. This is perhaps the most authentic film I’ve ever seen, as Tender Mercies feels like a real world with actual people, not an artificial one with dramatic liberties taken. The story needs that kind of realism as well, as it is rooted in human emotion and internal struggles, so to inject wild twists or imbalance the mood would have been disastrous. I also appreciate that Tender Mercies doesn’t condescend to the audience, so as development happens, we can see the changes and aren’t reminded over and over again. Most movies don’t trust the viewers to actively watch, so this was such a welcome approach. The film also has a stripped down, raw feel to the narrative, so the pace is brisk and the movie has little filler, which means every scene is a valued piece of the overall picture. I’d recommend this without hesitation to anyone who likes film in general, as Tender Mercies is a great example of working the basics, which can be one of the toughest approaches to take.
The movie was nominated for a handful of Academy Awards and won two, including Robert Duvall’s triumph as Best Actor. His career is one of the most impressive in the history of cinema, with one excellent performance after another, so to call this one of his best is a massive compliment. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about actors disappearing into roles, but Duvall vanishes in Tender Mercies, leaving behind Mac Sledge and one of the most authentic, believable performances I’ve ever seen. His approach is natural and understated, he crafts a real person out of Sledge and that is crucial here, given that Sledge’s inner struggles are on full showcase. I can see how it might not dazzle some, as it is so natural it doesn’t even feel like acting at times, but that is a testament to how skilled Duvall’s work here is. The rest of the cast follows suit with sincere performances, with Tess Harper as another standout as Mac’s new wife and Wilfred Brimley in a small, but well acted role as well. The cast also includes Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, Paul Gleason, and Allan Hubbard.
The Disc: Tender Mercies has landed on Blu-ray via Umbrella Entertainment and this visual treatment is quite good. The image looks clean and allows for a good amount of detail to come through, while keeping the natural film-like presence of the material. I think this is a considerable improvement over the DVD edition I’ve seen, with more fine detail and a sharper overall look. The movie does have a slightly soft, warm look to it, but that is how Tender Mercies was intended to come across. The supplements include director’s comments from director Bruce Beresford, a featurette that has interviews with several prominent cast & crew members, and the film’s trailer.