There isn't a lot of action in Tender Mercies, yet the telling of the simple story is so remarkable that the result is an unusually impressive film. Robert Duvall gives a low-keyed and subtle characterization as the ex-drunk handyman who becomes the husband of the widowed motel owner for whom he has been working; the story is largely one of their marriage, with its multiple resonances from the past. Australian director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant) has done a superb job in his first American film. We absorb the feel of the monotonous Texas flatlands and the lives of the people against this setting, of the tacky rural motel that is the home of the principals, of the tawdry bars and ugly churches—all shown not as an outsider would view them but with the feeling-tone of the inhabitants themselves. We often see the characters from afar off, as tiny portions of an endless landscape, gaining thereby a better idea of what it is like to live there.
The characters seldom express their feelings in words; they are inadequate at verbal expression, and we infer their feelings from subtle gesture and their mode of interaction with their environment. The unverbalized feelings of the characters are reflected in their positioning in the picture: there is always space between them, and in conversation they often look past rather than at one another. But the communication of their feelings to us is sharp and perceptive: when the new husband departs and doesn't come home after dark, the wife doesn't know whether he is out drinking after months of abstinence or seeing his ex-wife or daughter; she waits for him anxiously, and we see repeatedly the long vistas of highway, the flatlands extending into the far distance, the distant sound of cars (each one passing without stopping), and again the darkening sky and the endless empty spaces. Anyone who has waited in vain for someone who is expected back feels the intensity of the anxiety, even without seeing the woman's face. On other occasions the viewer must pick up feelings from minimal cues in their behavior and is often left to draw his own conclusions about what they may be feeling.
The church and its members are not treated with the low-comedy contemptuousness one often sees today in films, but simply as a part of the pattern of their lives. When Duvall says, "Why did my daughter die while I was permitted to live?" his wife cannot answer within the terms of her own religion, and she is silent. "I don't trust happiness," he muses. "I never did; I never will." And yet, from the mindless happenstance of nature—her sudden widowhood and his separation and his daughter's sudden death—there is a happiness, as well as love and pride, that slowly emerges, and whose effect remains with the viewer afterward. This film provides an unusual and worthwhile cinematic experience.
After his overambitious and pretentious projects such as Apocalypse Now, it is a welcome relief to see Francis Ford Coppola do a more modest film such as his current The Outsiders. Like Tex, it's about growing up, viewed so completely from the standpoint of the juveniles that there's scarcely an adult in the entire film. This film is not as focused as Tex, dealing as it does with three main characters rather than one, and the viewer's attention keeps shifting from one character to another. But the tale of youths who are forced by circumstances to be self-sufficient, and to deal with gang warfare along with all the other problems of growing up in Tulsa, has a ring of genuineness. The story, though sometimes too melodramatic, is absorbing. In spite of the fact that two of the three principal characters die, Coppola has succeeded in keeping the story from being depressing by enabling us to enter imaginatively the psyches of each of the principals in true cinematic fashion—that is, through actions and gestures and body language more than through words.
From an adult point of view, it must be added that not every one of the depicted crises tears the orderly fabric of the universe as much as it may seem to the characters involved. One sometimes feels, "This is overblown—they'll get over it," or, "This was a foolish and unnecessary mistake—this is their own fault, not the fault of circumstances." And thus the ability of a mere adult to identify imaginatively with the characters is somewhat limited. Not so, however, with the youngsters who constitute the vast majority of the audience for this film; their ability to empathize with the characters is, from all appearances, quite boundless.
John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.