Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) is a widow with a 12-year-old son, Sonny. They keep the Mariposa Motel, a lonely Texas motel and gas station out on the desolate prairie. One night an alcoholic drifter named Mac (Duvall) winds up unable to pay for his room after his traveling companion departs in the night. Mac asks if he can perform some work around the motel to pay off his debt, and Rosa Lee agrees. After his debt is paid Mac asks if he can keep working at odd jobs at the motel in return for room and board, and Rosa Lee agrees again.
Eventually Mac and Rosa Lee fall in love and get married. It turns out that Mac is actually Mac Sledge, once a very famous and successful country music star, whose career was destroyed by his alcoholism. Mac has an ex-wife, Dixie Lee (Betty Buckley), who is also a country music star, and a daughter by Dixie, 18-year-old Sue Ann (Ellen Barkin). Will Mac conquer his demons and live a happy life with his new wife and stepson?
Nominated for five Academy Awards, with Duvall winning for Best Actor (his sole Oscar win to date) and Horton Foote winning for Best Original Screenplay. Wilford Brimley appears as Harry, Dixie Lee's manager.
- The Alcoholic: Mac's drinking wrecked his highly successful music career and destroyed his family.
- Bittersweet Ending: Sue Ann dies tragically and senselessly when her Drunk Driver husband crashes their car. But Mac has found new happiness with Rosa Lee and Sonny, and he may even be starting his music career again.
- Bratty Teenage Daughter: Sue Ann, determined to rebel against her mother. First she looks up her father against Dixie's wishes, then she does worse by getting married.
- Chiaroscuro: The placement of the motel on empty flatland with absolutely nothing else around it leads to some moodily shot scenes at night.
- Dead Guy Junior: Sonny tells the bullies at his school that his name is actually Carl Herbert Wadsworth Jr., after his father, killed in The Vietnam War.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Averted. Mac goes out and buys a bottle after after Dixie rejects his song, but ultimately reveals that he poured it all out on the ground.
- Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene finds Mac having a brawl with his traveling companion over a bottle of liquor in their hotel room. The next morning finds Mac passed out and broke in said hotel room. He is firmly established as The Alcoholic.
- The Missus and the Ex: Rosa Lee is none too thrilled when Mac goes to see a show by his ex-wife, Dixie Lee.
- No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: A now-grown Sue Ann asks "Do you recognize me?" when meeting her father again.
- Romancing the Widow: Rosa Lee's husband was killed in Vietnam in 1971.
- Someone to Remember Him By: In the back story, Rosa Lee's husband Carl got drafted and sent off to Vietnam before she even knew she was pregnant; he was killed there.
- Title Drop: Rosa Lee says that when she goes to bed she thanks the Lord for all the "tender mercies" that He extends to them.