United States, 2009
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Written By: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell
Running Time: 112 minutes
Rated R for language and brief sexuality.
In the blistering heat of a New Mexico afternoon, a 1978 Chevy Silverado pulls into the bare parking lot of a bowling alley. Out of the vehicle stumbles a gruff middle-aged man who stares in disappointment at the shabby facility, grumbles a curse, and reaches back in the vehicle for an old plastic bottle half-full of urine; he dumps it on the pavement before slamming the car door, taking a swig of McClure’s, and walking toward the alley. This is “Bad” Blake – country star of yesteryear – and this is his gig for the night.
Despite being produced by A-list record producer T-Bone Burnett, Scott Cooper’s film Crazy Heart is a not a music film. It has all the purity and rawness of real country music at its core, but the soul of the film is Jeff Bridges who hasn’t given such an infectiously good performance since The Dude (re: The Big Lebowski).
Bridges is all wear and tear, smoke and stress as Bad Blake, a country singer/songwriter who insists that no one will know his real name until he’s laid in the ground. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jeannie Craddock, a young reporter who falls for the washed-up, old star. Her blithe countenance, quiet demeanor, and face that radiates wisdom make the chemistry between Jeannie and Blake work. There’s not one lackluster performance in Crazy Heart.
Stardom is a thing of the past for Bad Blake and instead of playing to sold-out auditoriums of screaming fans, he’s relegated to smoky bowling alleys and barrooms, crooning his hits to the over-50 crowd. The whiskey bottle constantly at his side keeps him oddly contented and forgetful of the glory days, but there’s one memory that boils inside of him: how young country music star Tommy Sweet (a subdued Colin Farrell) rode his coattails into stardom and cut and run with fame and fortune.
Blake’s agent calls one day and says he’s been invited to open one of Tommy’s concerts. He reluctantly gives in and when the two men meet for the first time in years, Tommy is unpredictably grateful to Blake for the jumpstart he gave to his career. The two talk about how pop country music isn’t really country at all; Tommy says he’d love it if Blake would write him some new tunes.
It’s here that the differences between Bad Blake and Tommy Sweet become glaringly apparent. When Tommy takes the stage and is greeted by a roaring crowd of young fans, he exudes confidence to the degree that his song lyrics exude clichés. Comparatively, when Blake gets on stage, the audience is silent and listens as he sings with all the sincerity and life-worn weakness of a grandfather. His songs are thick and weighty; you can feel the price he’s paid to get those words.
In showing Blake’s struggle and misery, Cooper doesn’t romanticize the facts. Blake flips his Silverado while asleep at the wheel, loses a small child in the mall, blacks out mid-morning in front of the toilet, hurls drunk into a trash can, and lives in a filthy house that symbolizes years of careless living. This fearless approach to reality will no doubt make stomachs churn, but it gives Bridges the opportunity to show what a limitless actor he is and how much he deserves the Oscar nomination for Best Actor he received a few weeks ago.
The fruit of Bad’s struggle is not a new existence on flowery beds of ease, but a constant process of reconciling the past with the present in the hope of a renewed future. The painful thing about redemption, he finds, is that it comes at the price (and with all the pain) of total purification. The new songs he writes for Tommy all center around this process: “Whiskey has been a thorn in your side / and it doesn’t forget / the highway that calls for your heart inside.”
Though we may have seen this story before (Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler comes immediately to mind), Crazy Heart is a film both poignant and true because of its great performances. It makes us walk alongside a man struggling to take the high road not because it will bring him success, but because it is the only road that leads home. And in the end, we’re all the better for it.