The 1983 film, Tender Mercies, with a screenplay by Horton Foote, is the finest Bruce Beresford picture I’ve seen. It’s certainly better than his Black Robe (1991) with its indefensible pseudo-religious conclusion.
The earlier film tells the story of Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), an alcoholic ex-country singer, who meets and marries a Texas widow called Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who has a young son. Much vexed by his past, Mac sometimes expresses neurotic frustration and feels expected grief—he even has a brief conflict with his ex-wife—but he also gradually gives up drinking and is considerably happy with Rosa Lee. He even returns to singing and recording country ditties. The film concerns a trek to personal betterment, to spiritual promise, to God in fact. Mac gets baptized. Thereafter we do not hear him use the Lord’s name in vain, as we do earlier in the movie. Instead he sings the hymn “Wings of a Dove,” even after after a particular calamity befalls him. One can safely assume he is a convert.
TM‘s characters have difficulty explaining their feelings and motivations, and ambivalence is everywhere. Clearly there is plenty of it in Mac’s daughter Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin), who was raised mostly by Mac’s ex-wife Dixie, a woman foolish and spiteful and wounded. Indeed, we get a glimpse at how parental woundedness, that of Mac and Dixie, can render a child a lost soul. And yet Foote’s screenplay leaves us in no doubt that, for a man, to have God and a good woman is to make a true progress in light. We never could have doubted it.
Beresford has always been an expert filmmaker, knowing how to do a lot with open spaces. Many people, myself included, have enjoyed his secular heart-warmer Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Even so, I prefer the Foote-written heart-warmer.
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