I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will. – Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies
Tender Mercies is a 1983 film that won Robert Duvall his only Oscar for Best Actor. A wonderful story of redemption, it observes a man humbled by life but restored by love.
One of the ways people of a traditional or conservative bent might have better impact on the culture is by telling better stories. This movie would make a perfect example. Nothing about Tender Mercies is conservative in the political sense, but it asks the right questions and challenges the right notions while telling its profound story in a simple way. This form of straight-forward storytelling reminded me of another favorite movie from that era, Chariots of Fire. Although not a true story like Chariots was, not a single scene in the movie hits a false note. The Oscar won for Best Original Screenplay was deserved.
The focus of the movie is Mac’s conversion from drunken, washed-up country singer long since estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, to sober, loving husband and step-father to a widow (Rosa Lee) and her son (Sonny). Yet, one of the more brilliant examples of the way the story is told is how it becomes obvious that God’s mercy on Mac also becomes God’s mercy on the hard, lonely life of this widow and her son. Although the movie does show Mac turn towards faith, showing his baptism in a moving, yet unforced scene, it is his new wife, Rosa Lee, who is shown thanking God for His tender mercies. In a powerful scene, she reveals, “I say my prayers for you, and when I thank the Lord for his tender mercies, you’re at the head of the list.” The brawling, drunken, pointless life shown in the first scene of the movie is now a life with purpose. This scene, in showing how these two are now bound together in love, in faith, and in marriage calls to mind the wonderful line by G.K. Chesterton, “It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.”
How does God’s love make itself known to terrible sinners? Why is God’s mercy shown to this drunk but not that other one? Why do God’s tender mercies restore our life, only to leave us just as vulnerable to pain and suffering as we were before belief found its way into our souls?
For a fleeting moment, God begins to grant Mac the chance to restore his relationship with his daughter from his previous life. In their first encounter with each other in some years, Duvall’s facial expressions and tone reveal his brilliance as an actor. He is a man ashamed that he was the way he was when he was there, ashamed of the years he wasn’t there at all, yet hopeful and thankful to see her again at that moment. How many actors could have played that scene as effectively as Duvall? Unfortunately, his daughter loses her life in a car accident before they have a chance to take the next step. This leads to the most powerful scene in the movie, where Mac confesses his inability to understand the world:
“I was almost killed once in a car accident. I was drunk, and I ran off the side of the road, and I turned over four times, and they took me out of that car for dead. But I lived. And I prayed last night to know why I lived and she died, but I got no answer to my prayers. I still don’t know why she died and I lived. I don’t know the answer to nothing. Not a blessed thing. I don’t know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and pitied me and helped to straighten me out and marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And Sonny’s daddy died in a war and my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”
The tender mercies God shows us never come cheap, nor, it can regularly seem, are they overly concerned about our happiness. Mac is wise not to trust happiness in this life. He is now learning to be faithful to the Lord, and the Lord is teaching him the world will not be faithful to him back. For it is still fallen. Yet, why do the lessons have to be so painful?
One of the more common refrains among those who have children goes something like this: “I just want my kids to be happy.” When we say we only want our children (or our friends or our parents or our neighbors) to be happy do we remember that happiness in this world is not to be trusted? I’m not so sure we do. This is why we console ourselves in our sins – and theirs – by saying, “We only want them to be happy.” Christianity teaches us that since the world has fallen, happiness is ultimately only found in Heaven, in a kingdom ‘not of this world’. And Heaven is only found in Christ and His mercy, in a life of repentance and holiness. Do we trust God enough to believe that such a life is more enjoyable?
Much else happens in this movie worth discussing, with a second major theme being that of the importance of a father to sons and daughters. In fact, the closing scene implies this might have been what the film was about all along.