Picks and Pans Review: Tender Mercies

updated 03/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Here is a small, unheralded movie that sneaks into your heart with the insinuating potency of a great country song. Robert (The Great Santini) Duvall stars as a boozy, burned-out C&W singer-songwriter tentatively taking a few reticent steps back into music and life. Drinking and whoring had wrecked his first marriage, to a country queen (Betty Buckley), who retaliated by cutting him off from their daughter. His salvation is the love of a widow, played by luminous newcomer Tess Harper, who runs a shabby motel-gas station in Texas with the help of her young son (Allan Hubbard). Buckley, currently starring in Broadway's Cats, is bitchy and brilliant in a difficult role and Ellen (Diner) Barkin etches a tough and touching portrait of the now grown daughter. Although Horton Foote's terse screenplay does bear some resemblance to the lives of Nashville's onetime first couple, George Jones and ex-wife Tammy Wynette, don't expect a film à clef. Tender Mercies is about one man's emotional comeback, and Duvall gives it everything he has, which is saying a great deal. His beery singing voice is a revelation (Duvall himself wrote two of the appealing songs), and his unfussy, brightly burnished acting is the kind for which awards were invented. Credit for the film's many grace notes must also go to director Bruce (Breaker Morant) Beresford, whose feel for character and atmosphere is unerring. That Beresford is Australian only makes the singular American quality of this accomplished, authentic film more remarkable. (PG)

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