While Terms of Endearment is your quirky girl-time tear-jerker that mothers and daughters can paint their toes to, Tender Mercies is your stronger, quieter type of family drama that the men won’t immediately flee from.
Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a broken down middle-aged man who was once a great country singer. The first image we see of him is a drunk silhouette in a motel room fighting over a bottle of booze, then we see his greasy bald head pass out on the floor. It seems that somewhere on that floor, Mac realized he was nowhere and needed to get back up. He’s got no money and nowhere to go, so he humbly asks the motel owner Rosa (Tess Harper) if he can work for her. She’s a kind woman and they can help each other out.
This little motel on the side of a dusty road is in the middle of nowhere under the big Texas sky. It looks like one of the loneliest places in the world, and maybe it is. It’s just Rosa and her son Sonny (Allan Hubbard) who live there and they’re all the family each other has. Sonny’s father was killed in Vietnam when he was just a baby, leaving Rosa a widow at eighteen. And Sonny is getting to a curious age where he’s asking more and more questions about the father he never knew.
As Mac works for Rosa, he becomes part of the family. It’s nearly odd how Mac so quietly becomes a part of Rosa and Sonny’s life. We’ve hardly seen a conversation with Rosa before Mac asks to marry her. But maybe that’s just how it is here in dusty lonely Texas, there’s no need for long winded conversations and you can really hear the few people your around much better.
Mac and Rosa are married before we even know about Mac’s troubled past. He was once married to Dixie (Betty Buckley) who’s still a successful country singer and they have a daughter who’s nearly eighteen. Mac writes a new song, gives it to Dixie hoping she can make some use out of it and hopes to see his daughter. When Dixie throws the song in Mac’s face and refuses to let him see his daughter, it nearly drives Mac to the bottle again.
While this is a story about Mac getting his life back together, it seems he’s not always ready to just plunge into the waters. When his daughter comes out to the motel to meet him, it’s not exactly hugs, tears and sweeping violins. The air feels stifling in that little yellow living room as she tries to share her life with Mac. She tells him about her boyfriend, how her mother disapproves and asks if it was him who used to sing her a certain lullaby. Mac lies and says he doesn’t remember it, like he’s just not ready to be that fond memory for her. Yet in the field across the street, under the wide blue sky, Rosa and Sonny talk easily. Maybe they just have more air to breathe.
Now, there are a few things you can probably guess will happen in this film, but there are a few sucker punches that make this film feel real, not like some after school special. This is a bleak, spread out and lonely world where second chances don’t come along so easily. It seems that girls get married too early and it never works out. Many dads never come back home and leave kids with so many questions. So you can’t ask for much and you’ll only be disappointed if you expect too much. In Tender Mercies, you’ve got to hold onto whatever little happiness you can find.
“I don’t trust happiness. I never did, I never will.”