Friday, January 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Tender Mercies"

With the release today of "Crazy Heart," it got me to thinking about the 1983 classic "Tender Mercies," starring Robert Duvall in a film with very similar themes. Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a once-legendary country singer who has disappeared off the face of the globe in a trail of booze and debauchery.

Mac and Jeffrey Bridges' Bad Blake from "Crazy Heart" both were once big-time stars, but are now out in the music business wilderness. Well, Blake at least was still playing in bowling alleys and two-bit honkey-tonks. When we first meet Mac, he's coming off a bender at a tiny Texas motel/gas station. He apparently was traveling with a friend who left him high and dry, with just his old trailer to call his own.

I loved the plain language of the Horton Foote screenplay. Mac simply goes to the woman running the motel and says, "Lady, I'm broke. I'll be happy to work off what I owe you." The woman is Rosa Lee, a young Vietnam war widow with a small son, and she will become Mac's salvation.

Foote -- who gave Duvall his start in movies by pushing for him to be cast as Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" 20 years earlier -- won an Academy Award for best original screenplay, to go with the gold statuette Duvall took home for Best Actor.

The time compression of the first 15 minutes or so of the film is amazing. In just a few quick edits, director Bruce Beresford lets us know that Mac stayed on as a hired hand, fell in love with Rosa Lee, gave up drinking, married Rosa Lee and bonded with Sonny, her boy. And yet this quick transition doesn't seem hurried or arbitrary.

Mac used to be one-half of country music royalty with his ex-wife Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), whom he once tried to kill during one of his alcoholic binges. At one point Mac goes to see her perform in nearby Austin -- he wrote most of her songs himself -- and they have a short but bitter exchange in which she warns him not to attempt to see their daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin, age 29 and playing 18).

Mac gives a new song he has written to Dixie's manager, played by Wilford Brimley, but he returns it to him a few days later, saying it's no good because the country music game has changed. Mac is so enraged, he drives off in a huff, intending to get drunk, but he pours out the bottle he bought and returns to Rosa Lee.

A newspaper reporter turns up to write a story about Mac, but he refuses to answer questions. The story comes out anyway, mostly Dixie's tales of his terrible treatment of her, which generates some notoriety in the sleepy little town. The film's critical exchange comes when Mac is coming out of a feed store, and a woman asks him, "Were you really Mac Sledge?" He says, "Yes ma'am, I guess I was."

A young band turns up on Mac's doorstep looking for inspiration, and he eventually agrees to record the song he wrote for Dixie with them. Just when the record comes out and Rosa Lee tunes the song on the truck radio, Mac reaches his hand in and snaps it off. He has just received word that his daughter, who ran off with a much older man, has died in an accident.

This leads to perhaps the most important scene in the movie, with Mac tending a small garden he has planted across the street from the motel. Beresford shoots naturalistically, almost documentary style, in long shot with a long take with no cuts or close-ups. You can't even see Duvall's face underneath his wide-brimmed hat in the slanting sun. But the pain and power of the scene just spill out over that spare Texas landscape. "I don't trust happiness; never have, never will," Mac confesses.

Like Bridges, Duvall did all his own singing for the film, and even wrote two songs. When I first heard him, I told myself that couldn't be Duvall -- it sounded exactly like an old-school country singer, with a deep, baleful tone. Duvall reportedly spent weeks driving around Texas, listening to accents and small-town bands to get his sound just right.

I have to say that after seeing "Tender Mercies," "Crazy Heart" diminishes just a little bit in my eyes. Many of the themes of redemption and regret seem clearly inspired by the earlier film.

3.5 stars

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