I have long loved Horton Foote's plays and films. They find low-keyed but compelling conflict in the lives of ordinary people and require no melodrama or high-level excitement to keep you watching and caring. His "Tender Mercies" ranks in my Top 10 list of American movies and "The Trip to Bountiful" is not far behind.
The strengths of his best films are typically in the performances. He seems to create characters that actors can disappear into and portray in absorbing depth. In this film, it is the widowed Texas farmer, played by Hume Cronyn, who holds our interest. While he grieves the loss of his wife, there is also the matter of what to do with his farm now that he is "alone." Ironically, however, the prospect of striking oil on his land has left him anything but alone as he is harrassed by two nephews who are in for a share of any profits. And his two married daughters are a kind of sadly comic Regan and Goneril, one of them returning home with her unemployed husband.
Cronyn's aging patriarch is no King Lear, however. He remains the calm, self-possessed Rock of Gibraltar at the center of the domestic storm that swirls around him. His fatherly generosity and patience are never compromised by the wheedling manipulations of his family. He seems to understand that grown children must live by the choices they make and solve their own problems, and he remains unflappable from beginning to end. Cronyn is joined by a cast of fine actors, each turning in perceptive performances: James Earl Jones, Chris Cooper, Shelley Duvall, Hallie Foote, Piper Laurie, Ed Begley, Jr., Roxanne Hart, and Frederic Forrest. The ending, after all is said and done, is poignant and satisfying.