Tender Mercies (1983). Written by Horton Foote. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Starring Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, and Wilfred Brimley. 92 Mins. Rated PG.
He’s not necessarily a fellow one wants to hang out with, or even meet. Robert Duvall’s Mac Sledge, a role for which Duvall won the Academy Award for Best Actor, is an angry, boozed-out onetime country music star, writer and singer both, and the ex of country music’s reigning diva, the not-so-nice Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), who’s kept Sledge from contact, not without good reason, with their now eighteen-year old daughter, Sue Ellen (Ellen Barkin). This is a world as messy as the real one, full of lives hauling huge baggage of loss, grief, remorse, and a lot of plain old loneliness. Yes, they’re a little bruised up and down-in-the-mouth, neither cheery nor bouncy, but nothing out of the ordinary. Like just about everyone, they’re creatures of what life has done to them, and they to themselves, as is particularly the case with Sledge, who up till now has drowned in a bottle his talent, wealth, and family.
Sledge has washed up at a tiny backwater motel/gas station of flatlands Texas where he falls for Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), the young widowed mother who owns and runs the place. Sledge stays on to work off what he owes her, and lo, before long, they’re married tending to the place and Rosa Lee’s ten-year old son. And then out of the blue Sue Ellen shows up, someone Sledge hasn’t seen in years, thanks to his ex’s vindictive machinations. Near the end of their brief and awkward conversation, Sue Ellen asks her father if he remembers a song he sang to her when she was small, and though she remembers a fragment of lyrics, he says he does not.
And then she leaves, Sledge going to the window to watch her car disappear down the long country road, and as he watches, he sings that song he says he forgot, and when we hear it we can maybe understand why he said he had forgotten, so great is its inexplicable psycho-spiritual depth, especially sung here as Sledge/Duvall sings it.
And sing he does, quietly but intensely, chorus after verse–as petition and blessing and doxology and cry of his long-battered heart. Indeed, the simple and remarkable lyrics gather up humankind’s wild prayer of longing for a loving Something quite beyond themselves that heals and heartens.
On the wings of a snow-white dove,
He sends His pure sweet love
A sign from above
On the wings of the dove.
When Jesus went down to the river that
He was baptized in the usual way
And when it was done
God blessed His son
He sent him His love
On the wings of the dove.
And if anyone can sing it from down-deep, it is the broken-down but now restored Sledge. For it is a sign of something he did not think possible, first Rosa Lee loving him against all odds and sense, and now the return of his child, though troubled she is, given her dissolute, ever-warring parents. Doves come in countless ways to heal heart and bind the soul.
And amen to that.
written by Roy Anker
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