Posted by: Kristen Hicks | October 18, 2011

Texas Movies: Tender Mercies


Tender Mercies is a slow, sparse film about a man’s life once he chooses to leave behind his past sins and musical success. Robert Duvall, who excels at playing iconic Texans (he was good ‘ol Gus in the Lonesome Dove miniseries I haven’t yet watched), is the character at the movie’s center, Mac Sledge. After many mistakes fueled by alcoholism, he makes the decision to stay on at a motel run by a beautiful woman (Tess Harper-familiar to me as Jesse’s mom on Breaking Bad) and her son and he little by little becomes part of their family.

The tone of the movie is unique in that its focused on watching scenes unfold, often from a distance or with the focus on something other than the action of the scene itself, while only giving small pieces of information to move the story forward slowly. For example, it’s probably a good 20-30 minutes into the film when we get the piece of information that Mac Sledge was a well known country singer, when a journalist shows up at his home asking for an interview. Before this, we see him casually ask the motel owner, Rosa Lee, if she’d consider marrying him in an understated conversation while gardening, which then cuts to her son referring to him as his father in law. We don’t see the wedding or much of the courtship–scenes which in most movies would be considered important–instead we see long scenes of them together, talking rarely, while living day to day, side by side.

The drama of the movie comes into play when we meet his ex-wife, who maintains the status of a well known country singer, Dixie and her and Mac’s daughter, Sue Anne. Dixie still makes a living singing many songs originally written by Mac. We see several scenes of her singing and she’s a powerful performer, with a big personality that comes out when she first encounters Mac. She forbids him from seeing their daughter due to his past sins as an alcoholic (which sound pretty considerable, although the version of his character we’re shown in the movie is much more subdued than the version that’s referenced from his past) and makes clear her desire to have nothing more to do with him.

Mac struggles with his itch to write music in spite of his happiness outside of that world, living with Rosa Lee. She’s quick to encourage him, but Dixie and her manager (Wilfrid Brimley) disparage the song he offers them and he’s left feeling like he’s lost his ability. Accompanying their dismissal of their music,they lay a larger blow by keeping him away from the estranged daughter he’d like to reconnect with.

As is the way of this movie, things start to change, little by little. A country band that idolizes Mac stops by the motel to offer praise and ask for tips. Rosa Lee takes advantage of the opportunity to pass along one of his songs to them and over time their enthusiasm and that of the record label they work with start to urge him back towards singing.

Unbeknown to her mother, his daughter also pays him a visit, fills him in on her love life and makes clear overtures of an interest in a relationship..

Just as it looks like everything’s falling into place for Mac to have it all–Rosa Lee and her son, his own daughter back and a resurgence of his music career, the news comes of his daughter’s accident and it all falls apart again.

The slow pace of the movie and the unusual filming choices for setting up the scenes give the film a much more natural feel than most movies that come out of Hollywood. It serves as an effective tool to make the characters and their struggles feel more real and thus make it that much more effective when we see them suffer tragedy.

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