Tender Mercies
Director: Bruce Beresford. Cast: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard, Wilford Brimley, James Aaron, Paul Gleason. Screenplay: Horton Foote.

Look, I'm sorry. Well, not that sorry. I am sure there are people who love this movie, as it is the sort of movie that exists to be loved, probably by a doting coterie who will guard it like a pet or a child. It doesn't make a single loud or large gesture. It barely moves. It just breathes. And yes, because there is such a slag heap of loud, large, breathless junk ever-present in American cinemas and video stores, a movie that's as quiet and fawn-like as Tender Mercies is bound to be appreciated for—what did John Singleton call it?—increasing the peace.

So if you love Tender Mercies, I understand. I concede that it is gently played and warmly textured, and that Jeannine C. Oppewall, a classy art director who thrives in quaint American environments (The Bridges of Madison County, Pleasantville), does some God's honest work designing the modest interiors in which most of the movie plays out. (God himself art directed the sere exteriors around Palmer and Waxahachie, Texas, where the unrushed characters occasionally putter around.) But like a quiet child whose primary virtue is that he doesn't make any waves, Tender Mercies is so muted and obedient that it's hard in good conscience to praise it, even if it gives you no trouble and even makes you feel good. Though I must say this film won't make everyone feel good. Horton Foote, the gentlest soul among all American playwrights (though he dug a little deeper in The Young Man from Atlanta), is so committed to small-town rhythms and tones that his plays and movies often vanish while you're reading or watching: he puts the "small" back in "small-town." Several scenes are so wispy they're barely there, and character interactions are so polite that you might even get a little cranky, wondering why these people know so little about each other, and why they are circling each other with such trepidation. No one's going to bite, folks! How many months have passed, and recovering-alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge is still filling in his new wife Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) on some basic expository background? Is it crabbish to wish that Rosa Lee's son (Allan Hubbard) did more than extract rote character details from his mom and his new stepdad, and that his interactions with other kids—first naughty, then nice—didn't feel quite so hammy?

Tender Mercies is possessed of such stillness it seems leagues removed from the brash, chirpy vulgarity of something like Nia Vardalos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but in the guise of sanctifying its backwater Texas characters, it trades just as dully in narrative homilies and cultural clichés. Dead war heroes. Good women 'n bad ones. Daughters and dadddies who sing lullabies. Country-western purrs behind the microphone. Mom at the ironing board. Dad fixing the screen door. You keep thinking that Tender Mercies has forgotten something, and then in the last sequence it remembers: a football! How did it take so long to appear? The extended short-pass session between Mac and Sonny (that's the kid's name, you hear) is so drawn out and cornily photographed that in the last of the movie's 92 minutes, it finally tips the balance into unsalvageable preciousness. At the same time, director Bruce Beresford loses his nerve and supplants his actors' own proudly supplied vocal tracks with a butter-dripping adult contemporary ballad called "You Are What Love Means to Me," wept into life by Craig Bickhardt, whose musical idiom doesn't feel quite right for this movie. The chief thing Tender Mercies has going for it is a loyalty to its milieu, even if that loyalty is so bashfully expressed that the movie is limited from the outset. Once that spell is broken, though, there's little reason to extend this well-intentioned misfire quite so much benefit of the doubt. Duvall, unsurprisingly, gives a humane and reasonably well-shaded performance, and Tess Harper is well-cast to avoid any trace of false drama. But if you're me (and I am), you might hate yourself a little for wishing Karen Black or Shelley Duvall would drive by Rosa Lee's gas station and knock the movie for a loop.

To recover some context, Tender Mercies hails from that early-80s interlude when Hollywood took it upon itself to annually pay its respects to rural, dusty-road humanism, a ritual that curdled just a bit when the suddenly black-tied actors and filmmakers showed up to Oscar ceremony after Oscar ceremony, accepting their trophies for playing nicely among the little people. Tender Mercies isn't as risibly faux-stoic as Places in the Heart or as shrilly, perhaps unconsciously condescending as director Beresford's subsequent Crimes of the Heart. Still, for all its emotional integrity, it misses the quiet soulfulness of Jack Fisk's Raggedy Man with Sissy Spacek (not coincidentally, one of the few pictures of this type that didn't get any Academy blessings), and Duvall's role and performance lack the acerbic friskiness of Geraldine Page in Foote's The Trip to Bountiful or the volumes of weeping-heart feeling that Jessica Lange brought to her wonderful Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams.

It's as though a banner hangs invisibly over the set of Tender Mercies telling everyone in the cast and crew, "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait." And golden statuettes were indeed in the offing for Duvall (fair enough) and Foote (oh, come on). But while all these actors are standing around being demurely decent, there's an audience waiting to be entertained. Or rather, I suppose, there are two audiences—one who came to be bathed in reassurance, and another that's looking for an idea, an advance, or an insight. I guess it's still a segregated South one way or another, split between people who doubtless despised Robert Altman's Nashville and people who went bananas for it. I love a great deal about the South, but not as much as I love Nashville, and I'll take an overfull Altmanesque revue over a calico quilt of nostalgia any day. In fact, here's a trivia note: future Altman screenwriter Anne Rapp is credited in Tender Mercies as the script supervisor. What's to supervise? This is one script that isn't doing anything or going anywhere. Best to just walk away and leave it. C–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Bruce Beresford
Best Actor: Robert Duvall
Best Original Screenplay: Horton Foote
Best Original Song: "Over You"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Bruce Beresford
Best Actor (Drama): Robert Duvall
Best Supporting Actress: Tess Harper
Best Original Song: "Over You"

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay (Drama)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actor (Duvall)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Duvall)

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