Tender Mercies Review

Scratching at the heart and soul of most musical-based feature films is the idea that artists are contingent. As luck would have it, they have soared as high as they can, and hitting that limit is a dangerous topic to take down. It is as dangerous as reaching that height in the first place. Tender Mercies tries. It has all the goods needed for such a challenge. A strong leading man, an interesting angle and some fine music. Can any director or actor get to grips with the throes of alcohol and the impact it has on the working mind, though? Yes, absolutely. Tender Mercies does just that, and the Bruce Beresford-directed feature has time to kill with its leading man and the throttle of alcoholism.

Muffled screams and a down-on-their-luck man is shown thrown to the floor. There are worse ways to introduce a protagonist. Barfly springs to mind as the surroundings of Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) are revealed. Duvall’s country-singing roots help Tender Mercies along tremendously. Seeing the scope and trust Beresford has in his leading man is a rewarding experience. Duvall is free to tumble his way through the set, gazing on through to the outside, the camera capturing those inevitable moments of clarity in what could have been had he stayed on the wagon. Beresford does not mix his words, nor do his characters. They are clear cut and simple. No scenes linger all that long, and the simplicity of the dialogue allows for some poetic justifications that see an expert eye behind the camera detail some fine moments of explorative, interesting shots.

Most of those shots involve the longing Sledge feels, the desire Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) has to help Sledge. That unspoken respect and pity between the two is never mentioned to the audience, but it is detailed well. There may be pity from Lee to Sledge, but the lingering shots of mistrust for Sledge are interpreted well. Audiences are thrust deep into the heart of these lives and must grasp at whatever details they can pick up along the way. It is a fascinating experience, not because the characters are so great and well-polished, but quite the opposite. They are troubled and inexperienced, unknowable yet relatable. They are hosts for some other issue or creation, and the performances detail these messages effectively and credibly.

Tender Mercies has that debilitating link between artist and extracurricular activity. In most instances, the activity is drugs, and the artist is ruined. Crazy Heart would follow this Tender Mercies style up some thirty years later. But the latter is more successful. No shot lasts for all that long. Beresford is constantly cutting through the lives of three people at an old gas station. They crash into one another time after time, and never truly get to know one another. There is no time for soppy effects, and even when the emotions clatter into one another, they are as brief as the scenes that contain them. Sledge is a tic on the lives of two otherwise innocent, hard-working individuals. His resurgence in their life is for his personal gratification, it creates a resurgence in his own. Duvall and Harper both know that, and Beresford guides them to near-perfection.

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