Tender Mercies (1983) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A broken-down, middle-aged country singer gets a new wife, reaches out to his long-lost daughter, and tries to put his troubled life back together.

  • Alchoholic former country singer Mac Sledge makes friends with a young widow and her son. The friendship enables him to find inspiration to resume his career.

  • An alcoholic drifter, Mac Sledge, finds himself in a small Texas town. He gets a job doing handyman work for Rosa Lee a widow with a 10-year old son. Over time, a relationship develops between Mac and Rosa Lee and they get married. In due course it is revealed that Mac was a famous country singer with an equally-famous country singing wife, but alcohol ended their marriage and his career. After trying to turn his back on his former life, Mac now tries to reconcile his old life with his new.

  • Down-on-his-luck country singer Mac Sledge has nowhere to turn when he wakes up in a motel, short on cash. So he takes a job from Rosa Lee, the kindly widow who runs the place. Mac begins to fall for Rosa, who helps him confront his drinking, and also finds an unexpected bond with Rosa's young son. When the opportunity for a career comeback surfaces, Mac must choose between his new life and the life he let slip through his hands.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a washed up, alcoholic country singer, awakens at a run-down Texas roadside motel and gas station after a night of heavy drinking. He meets the owner, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and offers to work in exchange for a room. Rosa Lee, whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War, is raising her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard), on her own. She agrees to let Mac stay under the condition that he does not drink while working. The two begin to develop feelings for one another, mostly during quiet evenings sitting alone and sharing bits of their life stories.

    Mac resolves to give up alcohol and start his life anew. After some time passes, he and Rosa Lee wed. They start attending a Baptist church on a regular basis. One day, a newspaper reporter visits the hotel and asks Mac whether he has stopped recording music and chosen an anonymous life. When Mac refuses to answer, the reporter explains he is writing a story about Mac and has interviewed his ex-wife, Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), a country music star who is performing nearby.

    After the story is printed, the neighborhood learns of Mac's past, and members of a local countrywestern band visit him to show their respect. Although he greets them politely, Mac remains reluctant to open up about his past. Later, he secretly attends Dixie's concert. She passionately sings several songs that Mac wrote years earlier, and he leaves in the middle of the performance. Backstage, he talks to Dixie's manager, his old friend Harry (Wilford Brimley). Mac gives him a copy of a new song he has written and asks him to show it to Dixie. Mac tries to talk to Dixie, but she becomes angry upon seeing him and warns him to stay away from their 18-year-old daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin).

    Mac returns home to a jealous Rosa Lee and assures her he no longer has feelings for Dixie, who he describes as "poison" to him. Later, Harry visits Mac to tell him, seemingly at Dixie's urging, that the country music business has changed and his new song is no good. Hurt and angry, Mac drives away and nearly crashes the car. He buys a bottle of whiskey but, upon returning home to a worried Rosa Lee and Sonny, he tells them he poured it out. He admits he tried several times to leave Rosa Lee, but found he could not. Some time later, Mac and Sonny are baptized together in Rosa Lee's church.

    Eventually, Sue Anne visits Mac, their first encounter since she was a baby. Mac asks whether she got any of his letters, and she says her mother kept them from her. Sue Anne also reports that Dixie tried to keep her from visiting Mac and that she plans to elope with her boyfriend despite her mother's objections. Mac admits he used to hit Dixie and that she divorced him after he tried to kill her in a drunken rage. Sue Anne asks whether Mac remembers a song about a dove he sang to her when she was a baby. He claims he does not, but after she leaves he sings to himself the hymn "On the Wings of a Dove."

    Boys at school bully Sonny about his dead father, and he and Mac grow closer. The members of the local country band ask Mac permission to perform one of his songs, and he agrees. Mac begins performing with them and they make plans to record together. His newfound happiness is interrupted when he learns Sue Anne has been killed in a car accident. Mac attends his daughter's funeral at Dixie's lavish home in Nashville and comforts her when she breaks down.

    Mac returns to Rosa Lee in despair. He says, "I don't know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny's Daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? See, I don't trust happiness. I never did; I never will."

    Back home, Mac keeps quiet about his emotional pain, although he wonders aloud to Rosa Lee why his once sorry existence has been given meaning and, on the other hand, his daughter died. Throughout his mourning, Mac continues his new life with Rosa Lee and Sonny. In the final scene, Sonny finds a football Mac has left him as a gift. Mac watches the hotel from a field across the road and sings "On the Wings of a Dove" to himself. Sonny thanks him for the football and the two play catch together in the field.

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