Tender Mercies Ambles onto DVD

Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Allan Hubbard, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 (widescreen), 16:9 (anamorphic). Dolby 2.0. 92 minutes. 1983. Republic Pictures/Artisan 11191. PG. $24.95.

The stories of Texas singer-songwriters are littered with poetry and corpses. Perhaps no one serves as a better example than Townes Van Zandt, who wrote "Pancho and Lefty," "For the Sake of the Song," "To Live's to Fly," "Tecumseh Valley," and many others that influenced a generation of country and folk singers. Never able to get his demons under control, or reach the potential suggested by some of his songs, Van Zandt died on New Year's Day, 1997.

Tender Mercies is the story of a man facing the same abyss. When we first meet Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), we don't even see him. Instead, we hear him fighting with someone over a bottle in a motel somewhere in a desolate stretch of Texas. The next morning, broke, hungover, alone, and hungry, he asks the woman (Tess Harper) who runs the motel and a small gas station if he can work off the money he owes her. The first tender mercy he's shown is when she lets him work, provided he doesn't drink on the job. In the vignettes that follow, Sledge is revealed as a dignified man of few words who was once a country singer with some money, fame, and a talent that's more a memory than a possession.

Duvall won an Oscar for his portrayal of this quiet man who chooses what seems to be his last hope for putting his life back together by marrying Rosa Lee, the woman who runs the motel. Duvall makes us feel his character's loneliness and regrets, though he never comes out and says he's lonely or regretful. In fact, it's hard for Mac to string more than two words together in a sentence. He holds his words inside to keep his pain company.

We watch him slowly cobble a life together, first by marrying and quitting drinking, and then with a low-key revival of his singing and songwriting. Director Bruce Beresford takes his time telling the story, and without car chases, gunshots, or hysterics. Mac Sledge is a soft-spoken man, and this is a soft-spoken movie.

The widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of Tender Mercies is also a bit soft, though by no means enough to ruin the film. It might look better in the enhanced (anamorphic, 16:9) presentation, however. The sound is in its original stereo, which is fine. There's a very brief glitch in the soundtrack about two-thirds of the way through—a moment of missing sound—but it's the only bump in the road. Unfortunately, there are no extras—no theatrical trailer, no cast bios, no director's commentary. Such a low-budget delivery is not what this fine film, or its fans, deserve.

Still, Duvall is always worth watching, and this is one of his finest performances. The supporting cast is adequate, though no one truly shines. (But Betty Buckley, as Sledge's ex-wife, also a singer, can belt out a tune.) The main reason to see it is to watch one of the finest actors around reveal the heart of a character through nuances of inflection, tone, facial expression, and body language—they call it "acting." This actor is more than worth the price of a rental or purchase of Tender Mercies.