Directed by Bruce Beresford
The small Texas roadside motel upon which Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) stumbles might as well exist outside of the real world. It’s the place of his rebirth, a slow, arduous process that takes place over the course of this film. The movie opens there with a drunken fight that leaves him penniless, and it’ll end only a couple hundred yards away. In this tiny homestead, like that of an old western, he finds some sort of salvation.
It’s a poetic journey and a sparse one too. The motel is run by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a young widow with a young boy named Sonny. Her husband died at 19 in the Vietnam War, and she refers to that time in her life as though it were from another lifetime entirely.
Rosa helps bring Mac back to life, though she doesn’t do so out of pity, passion or the like. With no money to his name he offers to pay off his debts, and as the weeks turn into months they find that they enjoy each other’s company. We’re never explicitly told this, as the narrative unfolds quietly enough, with us left to connect the dots. It’s not until he proposes to her, with the same tone of voice as someone offering to fix a broken window shutter, that we realize there might be something going on here.
They do get married, but we never see the marriage. They surely make love, but we never see that either. Instead their romance is almost nonexistent, turning their marriage, not the first for either of them, into something kind of innocent. It’s matter of fact, serene, patient and kind. In a way it just makes sense, even if because of his pre-existing country music fame and their age difference, it would seem to make little at all.
We will start to get glimpses into his past life, meeting the successful singer who use to be his wife and the daughter he hasn’t been allowed to talk to. It seems he was an abusive drunk, something which seems so far outside of what he’s capable considering where we meet him when the movie begins. He is a wise, peaceful old soul who we’re told was born out of a drunken fury. Like the motel existing outside of the rest of the world, this idea of who Mac once was seems entirely apart from who he is now.
Between his old life and new, as well as the same for Rosa, there is a solid line drawn between past and present, as if they are separate things with no real correlation. These characters hit a point at which they were forced to pivot and go a new direction. In both cases it has to do with things forced upon them, though in the case of Mac he had a heavy hand in what came his way. Before the film ends there will be another such event in their lives which forces maybe not a new pivot but certainly a new reality, at the very least a new filter through which they see the world.
And maybe that’s what this is all about, filters. There’s this great quote from Ingmar Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly (1961) that Tender Mercies makes me think of. In it a very sad man tells his daughter, “we draw a magic circle and shut out everything that doesn’t agree with our secret games. Each time life breaks the circle, the games turn grey and ridiculous. Then we draw a new circle and build a new defense.”
And that’s life, isn’t it? There will always be things unforeseen, for better or worse. They are like little chapter breaks in your life, some perhaps mundane and predictable but others out of the blue. They are the things taken away from or forced upon you. They might be wonderful, tragic or somewhere in the middle, and because we’re human, we for the most part find ways to coexist with these new circumstances. It may take time, it may be painful, but as a whole we find a way to adapt.
And that’s what Tender Mercies is about. There is a yearning to understand why things happen the way they do, why certain things must hurt and whether or not they imply or eliminate the idea of God’s role in all this. When characters appeal to God, they appeal to an idea that there’s some order, meaning, fate and whatnot, that there is a reason.
By the end of Tender Mercies Mac Sledge will come to decide that there is no meaning to it all, that things just happen. It’s not a moment of despair, however, but one of comfort, or at least the attempt to find comfort. He learns to accept what is and, more importantly, what’s directly in front of him. He basically just learns not to question why, both in regards to the pain and the good fortune. Everything just is.
Up Next: Alphaville (1965), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018), Trouble Every Day (2001)