WHAT better proof can there be of the distinctiveness of Australian film-making than ”Tender Mercies,” a film by Bruce Beresford that manages to be thoroughly Australian though it features Texas settings and an American cast? Mr. Beresford, the director of ”Breaker Morant,” has brought a hauntingly spare look to this story, which is set on a prairie as endless and barren as Australia’s. And the characters are as silent and unyielding as the landscape. Indeed, ”Tender Mercies” has a bleak handsomeness bordering on the arty, but it also has real delicacy and emotional power, both largely attributable to a fine performance by Robert Duvall. Mr. Duvall’s versatility seems to know no limit; in his role here as an over-the-hill country singer, he creates yet another quietly unforgettable character.
Mr. Beresford, working with less stiffly moralistic material than he did in ”Breaker Morant,” has a lighter, easier touch this time. ”Tender Mercies,” which was written by Horton Foote and opens today at Loews Tower East and other theaters, concerns a defeated-looking drunk who shows up at a remote, ramshackle motel one day and stays. At first, he lingers because he is broke and has offered to work off his debt to the pretty proprietor, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper). Soon he is staying for Rosa Lee herself, and without much ado or conversation, they are married. The gaunt, hollow-eyed Mac (Mr. Duvall) proposes this while helping Rosa Lee with her vegetable garden. Lonely, impoverished Rosa Lee says yes with almost more gratitude than excitement or surprise.
Only later does she learn that Mac used to be Mac Sledge, a famous country singer who drank himself out of a career at the top, and whose former wife was the still-successful country singer Dixie Lee (played by Betty Buckley, who doesn’t much look or sound like a country star, but whose powerhouse voice makes any such discrepancies seem negligible). It’s not clear whether Rosa Lee has heard of any of them before, but she hasn’t had much time in her life for anything as frivolous as country music or its gaudy celebrities.
Though Mac’s subsequent recovery of his strength would seem to lead toward a musical as well as a spiritual comeback, Mr. Foote’s screenplay has its focus elsewhere. It follows Mac’s relationships with his former wife, his daughter, his new bride and her son, weaving them into a sadly contemporary vision of family life and heading toward a final note of affirmation. This is a small, lovely and somewhat overloaded film about small-town life, loneliness, country music, marriage, divorce and parental love, and it deals with all of these things in equal measure. Still, the absence of a single, sharply dramatic story line is a relatively small price to pay for the plainness and clarity with which these other issues are defined.
”Tender Mercies” highlights Mr. Duvall, who is so thoroughly transformed into Mac that he even walks with a Texan’s rolling gait, but it also features some superb supporting performances. Ellen Barkin, who was so good as the young wife in ”Diner,” is even better as Mac’s spoiled and troubled daughter, and Miss Harper brings a beautifully understated dignity to the role of a new wife who is not much older than her stepchild. Wilford Brimley is solid and durable as a music-business functionary, and Allen Hubbard does a convincing job as Rosa Lee’s young son, whose father died in Vietnam. A great point is made of this, and it’s probably one big issue more than a little film like ”Tender Mercies” can handle. Like its laconic characters, the film itself seems to have more on its mind than it can manage to say.