Tender Mercies (1983). Written by Horton Foote. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Starring Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, and Wilfred Brimley. 92 Mins. Rated PG.
Notions of what exactly is meant by the kingdom of God have regularly shifted vastly ever since the phrase came into being. A lot of that fuzz continues still, needless to say, depending a lot on which theological tradition, insofar as any still exist, has fostered belief. Golden streets and crystal fountains, yeah, well maybe, like Disneyland or Vegas, depending on one’s taste/inclinations, and then on steroids and psychedelics, and, in any case, very expensive. In any case, cosmic destinations are risky speculation.
The one clear thing biblically about the Kingdom of God is that it is less a physical or metaphysical destination or location than a state or posture of being, usually denoted by a term like shalom, meaning a transfixing state of concord and delight. In short, the gist of the notion is more relational and experiential than cosmological, celestial, or whatever. And how then en-vision such (making visible as a part of what it means to in-carnate)? And there films can indeed help, at least on occasion, and not just because they tend, at least in the United States, to invariably supply happy endings, not all of which by a long shot do not begin to make the grade, for sure. At their best, though, they conjure glimpses of those rare states of being that hearken …. Evoke…
One that does come close is the conclusion of Tender Mercies, whose title in itself is richly suggestive. Recall that the film is full of wrecked lives: first, Mack Sledge (Robert Duvall) is an aging (and violent) alcoholic who because of drink has lost a thriving Country and Western music career (songwriter and singer), his marriage, and a daughter; second, the near destitute outback Texas single mother Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), who’s young husband died in Viet Nam by a sniper while simply out for a walk; and there’s Sonny (Allan Hubbard), a fatherless boy trying to find dignity and trust in the big world beyond his mother. By luck and grace they do come together, especially by means of Rosa Lee’s patient, tender ministrations to Mac and then the restored Mac to Sonny.
Nothing catches this better than the film’s unusual closing sequence. Mac has returned from his own daughter’s funeral (killed in a car wreck eloping with a shifty drummer in her mother’s band), and he has brought Sonny the gift of a football. And there the film ends, a new (and deeply grieving) father and a lost boy throwing a football on middle-of-nowhere Texas plains while from a distance Rosa Lee, herself an angel of sorts, watches in silent approval. And on and on it goes, quietly recording the delight of two lost boys, one aging and worn (though now renewed) and the other just starting, both having finally giving themselves, themselves having been found and loved. In the background lies Rosa Lee’s little motel, a small central building and gas pumps embraced by two diagonal buildings of rooms, indeed arms of welcome and enfoldment that renews people and, truth be told, the whole of the world.
And wisely Beresford lets the scene go on and on, itself being the point. The theatrical release featured a wordless orchestral piece over the sequence, but the DVD plays a somewhat hokey but still telling country song that points to a portion of the promise of the Kingdom.
written by Roy Anker
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