Tender Mercies is a riveting, compassionate, touching, and thoroughly remarkable film. The screenplay by Horton Foote (winner of the Academy Award for To Kill A Mockingbird) and the cinematography by Russell Boyd (Gallipoli) are exemplary models of taste and simple beauty.
Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is a burnt-out country-and-western singer/songwriter whose life has become a series of disappointments. He has lost track of the reasons to keep on keeping on. One morning Mac awakes from a drunken stupor in a room at the Mariposa Motel in the middle of a dry Texas prairie. The rundown place is managed by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow whose husband was killed in Vietnam. Mac volunteers to stay on as a handyman and work off his bill.
Sonny (Allan Hubbard), Rosa Lee's ten-year-old boy, is curious about this wanderer with a guitar and a face that reveals he has seen much of what there is to see in the world. Although Sonny wants to accept Mac, the outsider, he first must deal with the father he never knew. His classmates at school keep probing him for information about his dad how he died in Vietnam and what he was like. The boy wants answers and draws Rosa Lee into his searching process. The more he asks, the more she wonders what her life would have been like if her husband had lived.
Mac stops drinking and finds satisfaction in the slow, isolated existence at the combination gas station and motel. Without much fanfare, Mac and Rosa Lee fall in love and marry. He reveals that he was married twice before: once when he was too young and once to Dixie (Betty Buckley), a very famous country singer. When he attends one of Dixie's concerts, he learns that she still wants nothing to do with him and will not allow him to see their 18-year-old daughter, Sue Anne (Ellen Barkin). Later, Sue Anne comes to the motel to see her father; they awkwardly affirm their love for each other.
Mac still writes songs but, afraid that his career is over, he keeps them in a trunk. He is not sure that he can turn his life around; he hesitates when a country rock band tries to pull him into the spotlight again.
Rosa Lee is a member of the Baptist church and sings in the choir. When she thanks the Lord for his tender mercies, her thoughts turn to the new man in her life and her son. Rosa Lee is most gratified when during one Sunday service the minister draws back the curtains and immerses in the waters first Sonny and then Mac. On the drive home, she is radiant. The two newly baptized Christians do not know whether they are "different" persons now, but they are convinced something has happened.
Director Bruce Beresford has stated: "This film is about changing relationships. The man is finding a new life, the woman a new husband, and the boy a new father. It is a story of growing together and of hope." Tender Mercies is a very poignant movie about the healing powers of love. The country-and-western songs, delivered very nicely by Robert Duvall, lend their own special light to the many themes of the drama. Mac, Rosa Lee, and Sonny drive away the shadows of the past in order to become strong in the broken places of their lives. In the tradition of all memorable storytelling, Tender Mercies entertains, illuminates, and inspires.