Tender Mercies is an unusual film, one that takes place in-between two frequently made films. The events before are the rise and fall of a man and the events after allude to the potential for a return and reconciliation. The film is caught in the interlude, the gap and distance which is composed of self-reflection and redefinition.
The film opens with Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) at the lowest part of his life, a broke alcoholic with nowhere to go and nothing to be. In order to pay off his motel room, he begins working for Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), owner of a gas station and a single mother of Sonny (Allan Hubbard).
Therefore, Tender Mercies is not a film propelled by conflict. While there certainly is conflict in the film, it’s not the drive. The film spends more of its time slowly reflecting and unfolding the events as they emerge naturally. It requires a bit of patience, it’s a film that’s leading somewhere, but it takes its time getting to that place.
The organic pace allows for the natural and gradual flow of information. Instead of establishing characters, the film unfolds them like a flower, pulling back the pedals slowly and softly. The film is built around relationships and it extends that relationship to the audience, asking them to gradually learn about these characters as the film unfolds.
Tangential to the characters unfolding is the fantastic performances. Robert Duvall and Tess Harper both display an economy to their performance. Scenes that could become performance opportunity to exuding emotions or chewing up the scenery are diverted into the kinds of performances where the true emotion is seething beneath the action.
Credit must also be given to screenwriter Horton Foote who displays a great understanding of domestic human relationships by knowing that what is said is often not what is meant. Conversations are more about what isn’t said or what is implied than the spoken words. It’s honest to the way people in frequent, close proximity often communicate (and miscommunicate) to one another.
These qualities make for a film that may not be as dramatic, gripping or entertaining as a film concerned with dramatic stakes, but it’s a film that feels more honest to everyday life. Drama often suffers from being heightened to the state of the fantastical and uncommon. Tender Mercies is a story that feels like it could be about any average person caught in a strange time in their life.
Tender Mercies is a warm, open film that exudes the very thing it demands from its audience: a little mercy. It may not be as neat, engaging or familiar as the average film experience, but it makes up for it with honesty. That might make it a little less gripping on the front end, it takes a while for the film to start up, but once it gets going, it’s a fantastic feature.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing