Friday, February 15, 2013

Tender Mercies

We watched the movie Tender Mercies last nightAlthough it's been around since 1982, we've never seen it. 

This gentle movie gives the lie to the idea that Hollywood hates marriage.  The warm and tender-hearted love between the older musician (Robert Duvall) who's been struggling with alcoholism, and the young widow (Tess Harper) running a petrol station-cum-motel (a not very popular motel either) isn't expressed in outward passion, but in quiet serving and caring for each other.  It's also a Hollywood movie in which the Christian life is actually shown without extremes.  Two-thirds of the way through the movie, the widow's son (Allan Hubbard, in his only screen role) and the husband are baptised; neither of them define any difference, yet it's there in their subsequent behaviour.  

The woman sings in the church choir, but does no other Christian 'duties' (she hasn't the time anyway) yet her behaviour is at all times given over to the Lord, and she prays, and recites a Psalm at one point when things are in crisis.  None of this is overdone; it's evidently part of her normal life.  She trusts in the Lord to see her through crises, and though anxious at times, brings that anxiety to God. When asked to cash a cheque for $100 by the man's teenage daughter (who's had her allowance cut off by her controlling mother) she doesn't say no because she won't do it, but because she doesn't have that much on hand.  Nevertheless she gives what she has.  She has a quiet confidence, even when she doesn't have the words to answer other people's puzzled questions about why God allows sad things to happen.    

Equally, the man, when he's tempted to return to drinking, spends a night struggling with it, and finally comes home still sober. When he's asked to help a struggling young band, he doesn't preen himself as someone who's been famous in the past, but offers his assistance wisely, and willingly. When he has the chance to become a big name again by selling one of his songs, he turns it down; he knows what fame has done to him in the past, and contents himself with living amongst the 'small' people. 

Both are in considerable contrast to the man's former wife (Betty Buckley), who's angry at everyone and bitter about her life.  On stage this woman passionately sings Country and Western song full of 'true' love storiesOffstage her life is a wreck.  

This is perhaps the most understated movie I've seen in a long time, yet it's never tedious.   Early in the piece, the man asks if he can stay on at the garage and work for his keep.  Within a few short scenes the couple are married: there's been little sign of courtship, none of the usual leaping into bed with noise and passion that's so prevalent in modern movies. Both see something in each other that isn't verbally expressed, but which we understand, nevertheless.  And the man takes to fathering the boy without any great scenes of angst between them.  Of course there are issues, but they're dealt with off-stage, as it were. We know what they'll be from dozens of other movies; we don't have to see them all over again. 

The film was directed by the Australian Bruce Beresford (it was his first American movie) and written by Horton Foote.  Foote, who was in his sixties at the time he wrote the script, had been an actor and writer all his life.  He knows how much can be stated by the actor's body language, how little dialogue is needed to convey emotions.  Beresford makes full use of the wide open Texan landscape, the washed-out colours (the film only feels like it's in black and white), and the isolation of the place where many of the scenes take place.  Scenes where a crisis has to be worked through aren't done in immense close-up: Duvall has his most potent scene filmed in mid-shot, and from his few words (and no words from his wife) we understand everything he's going through.  

A wonderful, satisfying movie.


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