Contains spoiler As I watched Tender Mercies, I couldn't help thinking of Hank Williams. Any Southern male who is over a certain age has some of Hank in his very being, even if he isn't a big fan of country music, and any movie about country music must measure up to that enormous legend. Even fifty or so years after his death, Hank is still spoken of in hushed tones throughout the South. In my opinion, Tender Mercies measures up quite well. Horton Foote wrote the screenplay for Tender Mercies, and he pays homage to Hank in at least one scene in the movie. I'll get to that later. The movie opens in 'Nowhere,' Texas. Mac Sledge (Duvall) collapses in a drunken stupor in a nowhere room, in a motel that is run by a young Viet Nam war widow named Rosa Lee (Harper), who has nowhere to go, and it is obvious that Mac has finally reached the bottom in his personal descent to nowhere. Mac is a broken down, formerly legendary country music composer and singer. Duvall did his own singing in the movie, and he did it very well. He was convincing, and that isn't an easy thing to do, because singing country music is more than just opening your mouth and shouting out the words. You have to have the voice quality, the inflection, the body language, and the ability to sing on pitch. It also helps to have a good band playing behind you. Duvall scored high on his four requirements, and the band was very good, indeed.
We don't know what caused Mac's descent into the bottle, and to obscurity, but it's obvious that he has lived there a long time. He is about 45, but looks at least ten years older. The movie is about Mac's return to life, respectability, and writing and performing his music. It is said that an alcoholic can't reform until he has reached the bottom of the bottle, and wants to reform. In the beginning of the movie, Mac has reached bottom, and intends to begin the long, arduous road up again. He has no money to pay his motel bill, so he offers to work it off. Rosa Lee warily agrees, but tells Mac that there will be no drinking on the premises. She has a young son of about nine years, who was one year old when his father died. Mac falls for Rosa Lee and asks her to think about marrying him. Rosa Lee says that yes, she will think about it, and pretty soon, they are married, but we learn about it only when Rosa Lee's son mentions his stepfather to a playmate. In many similar movies, the love and sacrifice of a good woman would be the vehicle for Mac's rehabilitation, but this movie is too honest to sink to that level of triteness. All is not rosy, and Mac returns to sobriety in fits and starts, with some backsliding along the way.
With one big exception, we learn this from a scene between Rosa Lee and Mac's daughter, Sue Ann (Barkin). Sue Ann asks if her father is still drinking, and Rosa Lee replies that he would drink on occasion away from home, but that he just put the liquor down one day and didn't take it up again.
The function of Rosa Lee is to point him in the right direction. She insists that he attend church, which Mac does, and eventually he is baptized. The movie presents a realistic portrayal of church people, avoiding the usual Hollywood clichés of venality and/or hypocrisy. Church people are just like everyone else, a mixture of good and bad, but if they are true to their calling they recognize and acknowledge the bad and repent of it. Mac is divorced from a famous country singer named Dixie (Buckley), who has made a career of singing his songs. Sue Ann is the focus of their mutual bitterness toward each other. After a bitter scene between Mac and Dixie, he recklessly drives away to find a drink. He comes home in the early morning hours and confesses that he had bought a bottle, but had poured it all out.
One day, a van carrying a group of young men drives up to the motel. They all get out of the van, and ask Rosa Lee for five dollars worth of gas, but they are musicians, and they are really there to meet Mac. Mac regards them warily, but eventually they become the vehicle for Mac's return to performing his music.
Toward the end of the movie, Mac receives word that Sue Ann has been killed in an automobile accident. As is the custom in much of the South, the body has been taken home before burial. Mac makes the trip to pay his last respects to Sue Ann, and, as he gets out of his truck, he looks for a second or two at the mansion, which used to be his home but now is occupied by Dixie. It is set on a small hill, and as Mac walks toward this Loveless Mansion On The Hill, Hank Williams' music came flooding back into my memory.
If you like country/western music, or are just a Bobby Duvall fan, see this movie.
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