Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), a washed up, alcoholic country singer, awakens at a run-down Texas roadside motel and gas station after a night of heavy drinking. He meets the owner, a young widow named Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), and offers to work in exchange for a room. Rosa Lee, whose husband was killed in the Vietnam War, is raising her young son, Sonny (Allan Hubbard), on her own. She agrees to let Mac stay under the condition that he does not drink while working. The two begin to develop feelings for one another, mostly during quiet evenings sitting alone and sharing bits of their life stories.
Mac resolves to give up alcohol and start his life anew. After some time passes, he and Rosa Lee wed. They start attending a Baptist church on a regular basis. One day, a newspaper reporter visits the motel and asks Mac whether he has stopped recording music and chosen an anonymous life. When Mac refuses to answer, the reporter explains he is writing a story about Mac and has interviewed his ex-wife, Dixie Scott (Betty Buckley), a country music star who is performing nearby.
After the story is printed, the neighborhood learns of Mac’s past, and members of a local country–western band visit him to show their respect. Although he greets them politely, Mac remains reluctant to open up about his past. Later, he secretly attends Dixie’s concert. She passionately sings several songs that Mac wrote years earlier, and he leaves in the middle of the performance. Backstage, he talks to Dixie’s manager, his old friend Harry (Wilford Brimley). Mac gives him a copy of a new song he has written and asks him to show it to Dixie. Mac tries to talk to Dixie, but she becomes angry upon seeing him and warns him to stay away from their 18-year-old daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin).
Upon his return home, Mac assures Rosa Lee he no longer has feelings for Dixie, whom he describes as “poison” to him. Later, Harry visits Mac to tell him, seemingly at Dixie’s urging, that the country music business has changed and his new song is no good. Hurt and angry, Mac drives away and nearly crashes the truck. He buys a bottle of whiskey but, upon returning home to a worried Rosa Lee and Sonny, he tells them he poured it out. He tells them he tried to leave Rosa Lee, but found he could not. Some time later, Mac and Sonny are baptized together in Rosa Lee’s church.
Tender Mercies is a 1983 American drama film directed by Bruce Beresford. The screenplay by Horton Foote focuses on Mac Sledge, a recovering alcoholic country music singer who seeks to turn his life around through his relationship with a young widow and her son in rural Texas. Robert Duvall plays the role of Mac; the supporting cast includes Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin and Allan Hubbard.
Financed by EMI Films, Tender Mercies was shot largely in Waxahachie, Texas. The script was rejected by several American directors before the Australian Beresford accepted it. Duvall, who sang his own songs in the film, drove more than 600 miles (966 km) throughout the state, tape recording local accents and playing in country music bands to prepare for the role. He and Beresford repeatedly clashed during production, at one point prompting the director to walk off the set and reportedly consider quitting the film.
The film encompasses several different themes, including the importance of love and family, the possibility of spiritual resurrection amid death, and the concept of redemption through Mac Sledge’s conversion to Christianity. Following poor test screening results, distributor Universal Pictures made little effort to publicize Tender Mercies, which Duvall attributed to the studio’s lack of understanding of country music.
Tender Mercies (1983)
Directed by: Bruce Beresford
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin, Allan Hubbard, Lenny von Dohlen
Screenplay by: Horton Foote
Cinematography by: Russell Boyd
Film Editing by: William M. Anderson
Set Decoration by: Daniel Loren May
Art Direction by: Jeannine Oppewall
Music by: George Dreyfus
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: March 4, 1983