Most of the time we go to movies to enter a world different than the one we live in. Whatever the genre–fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, romance, comedy, even drama–movies give us a vision of life that is more vivid, more exciting, more engaging than our everyday lives. Why else would they call Hollywood the dream factory?
But sometimes movies succeed, not by escaping from everyday life, but by immersing themselves in it. That’s the case with Tender Mercies, director Bruce Beresford’s 1983 film about a washed up country singer and the quiet redemption he finds in a small Texas town.
It’s a haunting and beautiful movie, but not one you go to get your adrenaline fix for the week. It contains a moving love story between the country singer (Robert Duvall) and a young widow (Tess Harper), but has a bigger tale to tell than the passion they experience for one another. Tragedy inserts itself into Duvall’s character’s life, but completely off screen. Triumph accompanies the tragedy, but it is never trumpeted, and barely acknowledged. Nevertheless, by the end at least three people’s lives have been profoundly changed for the better.
How does this happen? Christians call it grace. As happens with Duvall’s character, grace comes to all of us in dozens of small ways, shaping us, molding our perception of the world, little by little and inch by inch making us fit for the kingdom of God. Grace is amazing, and sometimes it finds us in a life-changing moment of conversion or insight. But far more often it comes to us in little ways, making it just a tiny bit easier to love God and neighbor. Gerard Manley Hopkins said that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” meaning that God’glory is hidden everywhere, on the verge of bursting forth. Change “grandeur” to “grace,” and you’ve got a pretty good summary of Tender Mercies–and life in God’s world.