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Viewer Guide: “Tender Mercies” and “Winter’s Bone”

December 8, 2021 | Richard Peña


Tender Mercies (1983).

Tonight’s classic is Tender Mercies, the 1983 drama from a screenplay by Horton Foote, and directed by Bruce Beresford. 

In his first Oscar-winning performance—after three prior nominations—Robert Duvall stars as Mac Sledge, a man who seems to be in the final stage of losing his battle with the bottle. Waking up in his ramshackle room at a faded motel somewhere in rural Texas, Mac has reached a quiet realization that he’s finally hit bottom. With nowhere to go and nothing else to do, he turns to Rosa Lee, the young widow running the motel played by Tess Harper, asking if he can stay on as a handyman to earn his room and board. Sensing Mac needs someone to give him a break, Rosa Lee agrees, and their laconic partnership gradually blossoms into a quiet romance, with Mac also helping out with Rosa Lee’s boy Sonny. But when a van full of musicians pulls up at the motel, we start to learn that Mac’s past life wasn’t exactly an ordinary one: in fact, he’s a country music singer-songwriter, complete with an estranged country diva ex-wife played by Betty Buckley, and a teenaged daughter played by Ellen Barkin. But when Mac’s old life starts to crowd in on his new one, he finds himself confronting some of the old demons he thought he’d finally put to rest. 

Robert Duvall and playwright Horton Foote’s long association dated back to Foote’s screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, with Duvall memorably portraying the mysterious Boo Radley. After a bad Hollywood experience with The Chase in 1966, Foote had withdrawn from screenwriting, but began to cautiously venture back in 1972 with his adaptation of William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow,” which also featured Duvall in the lead role. Upon its release, Tender Mercies became a slow-building sleeper hit, winning audiences with its beautifully controlled performances and very adult look at romance. Garnering five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, the film was awarded Oscars for Best Original Screenplay for Foote as well as Best Actor for Duvall, who also did all his own singing in the film. 


Winter Bone (2010).

Tonight’s indie is Winter’s Bone, the 2010 drama directed by Debra Granik. 

Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-nominated, career-making performance. Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a 17 year-old living in the desolate Ozark mountain region of rural Missouri. Ree is struggling to care for her nearly catatonic mother, who’s suffering from an unspecified mental condition, as well as her younger brother and sister. Ree’s father, Jessup, is out on bail following an arrest for “cooking” crystal meth, but is now long missing. The family’s desperate circumstances reach a crisis point when the sheriff informs Ree that if Jessup doesn’t make his scheduled court appearance, he’ll forfeit his bail—and lose his house and property. Impoverished as her home may be, Ree is determined to save it at all costs, and seeks help from her uncle “Teardrop,” played by John Hawkes. However, Ree encounters a wall of silence at every turn, deepening the mystery of what in fact has happened to her father. When it becomes clear that Ree must prove whether Jessup is alive or dead to protect her family, she finds herself facing a brutal choice. 

When it came time to cast the crucial role of Ree, director Debra Granik and her co-producing partners wanted to find an actor close in age to the character, but also someone without an established image that would clash with the film’s stark realism. Jennifer Lawrence’s mother Karen had actually read Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone a few years earlier, and was convinced the character offered the perfect role for her aspiring actress daughter. When casting was underway, the then 18 year-old Lawrence aggressively pursued the part: although initially turned down for being “too pretty,” Lawrence changed opinions by taking a redeye flight from LA to New York, walking to the casting office with a runny nose and unwashed hair. Lawrence arrived on location in the Ozarks a week early to bond with her young co-stars Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson and begin the process of immersing herself in the environment—and yes, to learn how to skin a squirrel. Released to critical raves, the film was honored with a host of international awards, and garnered four Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay as well as Best Actress and Supporting Actor for Lawrence and John Hawkes. In 2013, Lawrence became the second-youngest Best Actress winner in Academy Award history for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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