By Philip Newton (England)
There is a moment in Tender Mercies from which I understood its characters, and the fears and regrets which kept them from living fulfilling lives, that moment came from lead character Mac Sledge when saying “I don’t like happiness, never trusted it, never have, never will”. Those words said with such clarity of truth and honesty speak volumes of this man’s life, his hardships and turmoil’s and are delivered by a truly exceptional actor finding the right tone and voice for a man minimal in words however words which reflect a lifetime of pain.
The actor is Robert Duvall, whom won a well-deserved academy award for this performance, he is better known to many as the trusted advisor Tom Hagan in The Godfather which in every way contrasts what he does in this film. Duvall plays Mac Sledge a washed up country singer fallen from grace although at the beginning we are not aware of this, he simply is a drunken man, you know the sort who you find slumped on a bench in any town not taking a second thought to how they got there or what they perhaps could have stood for in the world. When we are introduced to him he is hung over at a motel unkempt and dishevelled, he has no home or money and asks for a job from the owner Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) whom accepts and the two begin a relationship.
We begin to learn of Mac’s former fame as a country singer and how he let booze ruin it, with this came the family he left behind, his wife and a young child. Rosa likewise has pains of her own, her husband died in Vietnam leaving her alone to raise her young son and the two perhaps see each other as a second chance for happiness.
Fortune smiles on Mac when a local band want him to perform in their group as they are big fans of his, the moment when the boys see Mac reminded me of how I would feel meeting an idol, the joy and adulation of it and no matter how far they would have fallen from mass popularity, to me they would always still have that aura that captivated me in their heyday. In this moment Mac became something different to me he no longer represented a drunken failure but a man with pride and integrity for a talent which he still is passionate about.
The scene which captures the depth of Mac’s pain occurs in a conversation with his estranged daughter, meeting again trying to rekindle their relationship lost she mentions a song he used to sing her as a child, she names the song Mac says he doesn’t remember it. When she leaves Mac stands at the window and sings the song as if it has never left him. I loved the directing of this scene so simple yet poignant; the camera is positioned so we see Mac in long shot and as a lone figure showing the whole open space of the room.
I wondered why we didn’t see a close up of Mac and the emotion that evoked old memories while singing that song. Wouldn’t that have made us as an audience more connected to him and the scene as a whole? However I suppose that is what the scene is about, much like the film the distrust of happiness and his admission to the song would allow for a connection he is simply not ready for. The singing to himself is his own personal moment of happiness even if it is brief but it can be controlled and should be Mac’s moment alone, the distance in the frame between him and us does justice to the isolation of the character.
Duvall is an actor who always brings a high degree of authenticity to his roles, in The Godfather his loyalty as Hagan is honest and true, in Network his performance as a ruthless Network executive is chilling. Here he brings a man who changes our perception and much unlike the drunken man slumped on a bench we are given the opportunity to find the truth behind our initial prejudices. Duvall creates a quiet understated performance which compliments both the direction and the screenplay being subtle and delicate allowing us to hear the characters words and to feel their pain.