Sunday, June 16, 2013

Tender Mercies (1983)

Director: Bruce Beresford                            Writer: Horton Foote
Film Score: George Dreyfus                        Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley and Wilford Brimley

There’s a palpable difference in the pacing of films from the late sixties through the early eighties when compared to today. They took their time, to unwind, build character and suspense. Tender Mercies is a case in point. It would be hard to believe that it could be produced today. It’s a simple study of a washed-out country singing star. He’s remarried to a woman who lost her husband in Viet Nam and who has a young son. He works in the combination gas station/motel that his wife owns and is trying to forget about music . . . but it’s not working. Reporters, musicians, fans, they won’t let him forget what he was, and the music coming out of him in the form of songs won’t die either. Music destroyed him before and he’s a might skittish about takin’ another turn around the dance floor with it.

Robert Duval is Mac Sledge, a former country star who is trying to start a new life. Duvall wears the road-weariness well and is convincing in a way that would inform his later western roles in films like Lonesome Dove and Open Range. The real center of the film, however, is Tess Harper. Rather than the conventional bitter widow, she’s incredibly accepting of Duval. When he runs off one night, she doesn’t chastise him, but is supportive and loving. There’s a sense that if he did take off and never come back that she would be heartbroken but would be able to go on as before. Betty Buckley is Duvall’s former wife, a star in her own right who is keeping him from seeing his grown-up daughter, Ellen Barkin. Allan Hubbard is the young boy who does an adequate job, but doesn’t seem that interesting from today’s vantage point.

There’s definitely a pall over the entire film that is entirely in keeping with the subject matter. If, as has often been stated, country music is all about the stories then film is the perfect milieu for showing those stories that are sung about. And as far as that goes, the kind of slow and unwinding pacing of the film is also perfect. There’s a refreshing lack of histrionics of the kind found in a lot of films today, Walk the Line, for example. In some respects this is to be expected. Biopics often focus on the more sensational aspects of celebrity lives. A fictional story like this is relieved of the burden of factuality and can, instead, focus on the small things in life, sad as well as happy, and allows the audience to experience the life rather than the headline. Duvall won an Academy Award for his performance, and was certainly deserving of it. Tender Mercies is a small, intimate film, but one whose reverberations can be felt long after watching.

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