[1983] Tender Mercies

Raise your hand if you’ve seen 1983’s Tender Mercies.

I was talking to mom yesterday that I’d watched this movie and her response, as usual, was, “Well. What did you think?” I’d responded to this question before in my usual ambivalence: “I’m not sure, yet. I need to think about it.” And then we gossiped about this or that. I’m not surprised that mom has seen this movie. I’m surprised if anyone else has.

Tender Mercies, one of 1983’s Best Picture nominees, is part of film canon that has ridden below the surface for its 30 year history. Whether its been overshadowed by Terms of Endearment or The Big Chill or….1983 was a particularly weak year, and Tender Mercies fit the bill of an overwhelmingly mediocre film with a limited budget making the most of its resources. Tender Mercies doesn’t seem validate either of those hypotheses on the surface. The film itself is a 90-minute exposé on Robert Duvall’s acting ability and a concise reflection on the complexity of simplicity. The man, Mac Sledge, is surfeit of problems, but within the realm of Waxahachie, TX, the microcosm is simple: if he runs away and quits drankin’ his life will become the beacon of peace he’s looking for. It’s a 90-minute riff on the country-western ethos, so familiar to some and so alien to others.

Perhaps its too country-western, as Duvall himself expressed during the theatrical promotion and initial trial run. Perhaps Duvall’s plans didn’t lend themselves to a terribly profitable venture: the aesthetic of country-western is often synonymous with poor or struggling – these simple folks just don’t go to the movies and spend dollars on the moving pictures when there’s mouths to feed. Perhaps the studio, enamored with Duvall in The Godfather The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now, agreed to fund his pet project, a Horton Foote (To Kill A MockingbirdThe Chase) led-American values film. Somewhere in this particular production hell the studio lost interest and what we and the Academy were left with was a reflexive film project, displaying Middle American values, while adhering to them, without parodying them. It’s an interesting and rare combination – and was rewarded with a shelving and an Oscar nod for the film and a win for Duvall.

Ask anyone under 40 who Robert Duvall is.

It’s an interesting storyline to be a well-known actor, earn a pet project and 30 years later be stripped to parts and used as a novelty. It’s also hard to say whether this was by choice or whether his appeal has naturally diminished after years and years in the spotlight. Duvall is an octogenarian by trade at this point. Has he been marginalized? If nothing else, his “decline” has mirrored Mac Sledge’s and has become a great stamp on Tender Mercies as a slow burning fuse. Perhaps 30 years after its release, it’s become a relevant reflection on post-horse-and-buggy, pre-Internet Midwest life. Bullshit to the studio for any hindsight, but kudos for digging this one up.

In modern terms, Tender Mercies is the ’80s country-western Seinfeld. Almost nothing happens throughout the whole film. Plot, as is often marginalized in character-centric films, is almost obliterated within the small world that is Tender Mercies. Summing up the action in a sentence doesn’t do this film the correct kind of gentle justice it deserves; I don’t think that “Oscars” tell the whole story of acting chops, but if ever a man were to have a movie written to earn one, Duvall did here. He’s not entirely complex or simple, or sad or content. He’s neither balanced nor off-kilter. For most of the film, outwardly, Mac Sledge seems to be the character most in control, providing a source of comfort to his new wife and stepson, and even as a new source of comfort to his ex-wife and a fledgling band. But almost nothing concrete happens to move this plot along. There aren’t really any layers to uncover. Character analysis seems futile because it’s too obvious who’s who and what’s what.

As a riff on country-western, Tender Mercies only works pre-web. In fact, most of country-western only works pre-web. Too much sadness is numbed by the black spiral that is instant information sharing and bland distraction. We’re all guilty of it; even those who don’t have home access or a car can get it somehow. Too many plot points would be worthless in the Internet age. So while Tender Mercies is a self-referential, non-parodical riff on country, it’s also a gentle exposé on what it means to be sad and the futility of human connection in a post-Facebook world.

Nineteen eighty-three for all intents and purposes showcased five dud films, with Terms of Endearment leading the pack by almost default. I’ve not seen any of the other four films nominated (yet), but it’s obvious that none of these films has true staying power 30 years later, except maybe Tender Mercies, if anyone craves a 90-minute Duvall love-fest.

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