Tender Mercies

Biffle suggests that pregnancy has awakened in me a sense of wonder for the world around me, and he may be onto something there. I find that some of my bitter cynicism and relentless analysis is joined these days by a tiny bit more comfort with the sweet and the undefinable.

Perhaps this explains why I feel so compelled by a movie we watched last night, Tender Mercies.

This is an old movie (1983) which both of us had never happened to see before. It came up independently in several different conversations in recent months, so we decided we should have a look.

I want to reflect on the movie as a whole, so I guess I should give a spoiler alert here. If you don't want to know what happens, don't keep reading. It's hard to imagine much of a spoiler for this film, though, because it's not in any way a plot-driven movie. There's no twist. There's no moment at which the action picks up and things proceed along an unalterable trajectory. In fact, not a lot happens in the movie at all.

Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, an alcoholic country music singer and songwriter who winds up at a tiny hotel in the middle of nowhere Texas. There he meets Rosa Lee, played by Tess Harper, and her son Sonny. Through several scenes set a few months apart from each other, Rosa and Mac fall in love, get married, and proceed to live a very low-key, contented life. It's the least romantic romance sequence I've ever seen: Mac is weeding the garden with Rosa, and he says, "I guess it's no surprise how I feel about you," and Biffle and I exchanged confused glances--it hadn't been apparent to either of us that he had any feelings for her at all.

I'm not even going to tell you any more of the plot because it doesn't matter. What matters is the tone.

Rosa, Mac, and Sonny are incredibly low-key. Look at their expressions on the movie poster--those are pretty much the expressions they wear throughout the entire movie. The whole film is restrained--but not restrained in the sense of a great deal of tension being held tightly in check. Restrained like someone who's seen a lot of drama and just isn't interested in that anymore. Perhaps it's less restraint and more surrender. The mundane events of life--hanging the laundry, or laughing at a grouchy comment by a child--get as much attention and emphasis in this film as the death of Mac's long-lost daughter. In fact, the one character who doesn't show restraint--Mac's ex-wife Dixie Scott, who wails and screams and has to be drugged when her daughter dies--comes across as sadly self-indulgent, immature.

The film shows one scene happening after another, in a kind of unrushed pace that reminds you of real life. Mac has the opportunity to record some new songs, but the point of the movie is not that Mac returns to stardom and fame. Far from it. It seemed to me that this event in the life of the characters was equally weighted with other little happinesses: Rosa's smile when Sonny and Mac both get baptized, and Sonny's realization in a conversation with another boy that he likes his stepfather.

After Mac and Dixie's daughter dies, Mac does have a (quiet) moment of questioning the justice of the universe. He asks why she died and he didn't, and why Sonny's father died and Mac got to have this sweet life with Rosa and Sonny. The film doesn't answer these questions. Shortly after, Mac heads across the street to toss a football in an open field with Sonny. Biffle and I both steeled ourselves at this point for something awful to happen, for a huge truck to come barreling onto the screen and mow Mac down, or the boy. But that didn't happen. Nothing happened except that Mac tossed the ball and experienced one more mundane, indefensible moment of happiness in the life he'd found his way into.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the "review". I'll have to see it. I've always thought Duvall is an extraordinary actor.

Phil Smith said...

If time ever permits, you'd probably like other Horton Foote films and plays. Worth exploring.