Even as a little filigree along the frame of a movie, Robert Duvall satisfies. When he shows up as Karl's father in Sling Blade I immediately settled in, certain he was going to do something worth remembering--and it was, the mumbling, cornered vermin he evoked as expertly crafted as his crotch-grabbing, napalm-smelling Col. Kilgore (the name alone like some minor villain out of Dickens), his few minutes on screen still as quotable as Here's-looking-at-you-kid.
In a starring role he can be almost overwhelming. Even in something as "easy" as Secondhand Lions--the ease coming not only from the sentimental script but his costars--given enough space, Duvall takes over--no, that's not right; he's too generous to dominate. OK, he rises to the occasion, all the way to the brim. The scene at the bar with the punks in Secondhand Lions is ready-made--Eastwood would've had fun with it--but Duvall brings an extra touch of weariness to the moment, his paunch sticking out as he once more faces a foolish world. Showy, but irresistible.
You are now duly warned: A Duvall leading role can take a lot out of you. It appears he knows this in Tender Mercies, so instead goes for our weak flank: We do not get what we expect. His washed-up C&W performer, Mac Sledge, is almost not even there. He slips in the back door--like the Very Old Man with Enormous Wings in Gabriel García Márquez's "Tale for Children"; but he does not arrive to irritate and confound. Sledge wants merely to disappear with some dignity, but this decidedly quiet movie won't let him fade away. Instead, he is given the opportunity to take a few small, monumental steps back toward others. Tess Harper as Rosa Lee (and Ellen Barkin in the role that made me love her forever) joins Duvall in this world waiting to begin; the ending, which seems so inconsequential, becomes for me one of the most moving final sequences in film, a dry Texas coda that makes a small but essential promise to Mac and his family.
I suppose when it comes to memorable Duvall performances nothing can match Sonny in The Apostle (1997). But that was Duvall's picture all the way--as star, director and writer--and he gave it everything he always wanted to give us. In Tender Mercies, he serves Bruce Beresford and Horton Foote--but Beresford knows what to do with Duvall and Harper: While we lose Sonny's terrier yelps and help-me-Jesus stares, Tender Mercies gives us Whispering Bobby, his head down, ready to keep taking it if he has to, but hoping for a little something more.