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In Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall made a low-key spiritual conversion

Illustration for article titled In Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall made a low-key spiritual conversion
Screenshot: Tender Mercies

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week, ahead of Easter, we’re looking at films about Christianity.


Tender Mercies (1983)

Could it be that every director of a low-stakes Christian redemption story, wherein a man must rediscover his goodness with the help of renewed faith and a loyal woman, secretly thinks they’re making Tender Mercies? It would explain a lot about the dramatic inertia of modern faith-based movies. It would not explain much about Tender Mercies itself, a wonderfully low-key movie that lines up any number of potential clichés, only to elide them whenever possible.

This strategy is in effect from the earliest scenes, joining country singer Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) hungover and penniless on a motel room floor. He confesses to motel owner Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) that he has no money, and offers to work off his debt. She agrees, provided he doesn’t drink on the job. He winds up getting sober and sticking around; eventually they get married. In the process, Mac becomes a father figure to Rosa’s boy Sonny (Allan Hubbard), and pursues a reconciliation with his estranged daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). He recedes from the music business (his alcoholism having done much of that work for him), but he stays connected to music, quietly writing new songs, unsure about what to do with them. Music appears to provide a spiritual outlet for both Mac and Rosa Lee, albeit in different forms: She sings in the church choir, while his music career features tunes like “God Can Forgive Me, Why Can’t You?”

Whenever Tender Mercies looks ready to pour out a tall pitcher of backstory, Duvall, director Bruce Beresford, and screenwriter Horton Foote hold back. The first half of the movie in particular has a beguiling combination of an unhurried pace and individual scenes that feel trimmed down to their essentials. At first it seems miraculous that Duvall won a Best Actor Oscar for such an unshowy, lived-in performance. But then, doesn’t that describe most of Duvall’s performances? He has a gift for simply inhabiting his characters, wearing them like the cowboy denim he slips on here, giving them room to breathe. So much of his performance in Tender Mercies happens in pauses and little flashes across his craggy face. A scene where Sue Anne pays him an unexpected visit, for example, fits love, regret, and hesitation into the spaces between his sparse dialogue. The film’s most emotional scene famously plays out at a distance as Mac makes another confession to Rosa Lee: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.”

Tender Mercies is, in part, about Mac formally converting to Christianity. Religion is an important part of Rosa Lee’s life—the movie takes its title from one of her prayers—and it becomes a component of Mac’s, too, with greater ambiguity. It’s not strictly a convenience to ease his new family life, but it’s not depicted as his newfound calling card, either. He and Sonny are baptized at the same church service; afterward they ask each other if either feels any differently. “Not yet” is Mac’s response, with both amusement and honesty. The movie is uncommonly perceptive about how Christian faith helps to strengthen this man’s resolve while, at the same time, revealing the limits of his redemption. It’s a movie about workaday realities, where even seemingly melodramatic plot turns are treated matter-of-factly. Even in a spiritual life, there’s a lot of space in between communions with a higher power, and that’s where much of Tender Mercies hangs out.

Availability: Tender Mercies is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, or VUDU.


Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!