Despite all of its "Jesus"es and "Lord"s, Tender Mercies (written by the brilliant Horton Foote) is remarkably Zen in the simplicity of its story and direction. Like one of Kurosawa's failed, drunken ronin looking for a home, Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) is trapped by his rage. A once-popular country singer, he struggles with control over The Bottle and fights himself to lead a balanced family life. One doesn't need to enjoy country music to appreciate this movie. I've always struggled to get through an entire 3 minute modern country song, myself. But one can see the roots of the genre in Mac's old school version of country, a little blues and a little folk and a big broken heart; songs with titles like "God Learned to Forgive me, Why Can't You?" These tunes are directly contrasted with the full-band over-wrought easy-listening version of '70s country sung by his ex-wife (Betty Buckley), seemingly a pointed commentary on country music at the time.
Tess Parker is quiet and warm as Mac's new wife, Rosa Lee, who's determined to work through all of her man's darned quirks to make their family complete. One shot of her stands out: As Mac jumps into his truck, angry about his undying desire to keep writing music, she watches him leave. To the left of her stands a Coke machine with the old Coca-Cola slogan "Here is the real thing."
There's a wonderful scene at the end of the second act between Mac and his daughter (a fragile young Ellen Barkin) whom he hasn't seen in nine years. Mac is so humble and devoid of anger, that it's heartbreaking when he says he doesn't remember the lyrics to the song he sang to her when she was little. But once she's gone he quietly sings those very lyrics to himself. It's delicate and lovely.