Yes, there really is no excuse that it has taken this long to see Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart (2009). I was, of course, intrigued by the cast and all the raving in 2009. Between money and mood, I kept setting it aside. I am glad to have rectified the situation. If you have yet to see Crazy Heart, I strongly suggest you do the same.
“Crazy Heart, written and directed by Scott Cooper, is a small movie perfectly scaled to the big performance at its center. It offers some picturesque views of out-of-the-way parts of the American West, but the dominant feature of its landscape is Bad Blake, a wayward, aging country singer played by Jeff Bridges.” ~A.O. Scott (NY Times Review “A Country Crooner Whose Flight Is Now Free Fall.”)
Bad Blake appears to be on his last legs, an old, multiply divorced drunkard playing bowling alleys and small, out-of-the-way venues, staying in seedy motel rooms, driving himself from one gig to the next in an old truck. He is listed amongst the remembered, and is seen, industry-wise, as a detriment do shows and record with. He’s of the old guard of hard-living rebellious country western musicians. Blake meets a young journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who inspires him in more than a few ways and he is set upon a path of healing.
Drinking, cheating, love gone wrong — a lot of country music expresses the weary stoicism of self-inflicted defeat. Loss and abjection are two of the chords that define the genre. A third is redemption, which has also been a theme of modest, regionally inflected American independent cinema for quite some time. So even before Maggie Gyllenhaal shows up as Jean, a New Mexico journalist with a cute young son and some disappointments of her own, you can be pretty sure that you’re in for yet another drama of second chances and late-breaking epiphanies.~A.O. Scott
The story is refreshingly untidy. The romantic relationship between Bad and Jean is doomed, reconciliation with a son doesn’t look promising either, and his dying career is taking a major hit. He is tired of the road. He doesn’t care for the newest face of country music. His alcoholism isn’t remotely pretty. There is nothing glamorous to be drawn from his lifestyle, his life as gritty and real as his lyrics.
You will hear about Colin Farrell’s character Tommy Sweet long before you meet him. Bad Blake was his mentor and they recorded duets, but now it is Tommy’s turn in the sun and it’s left a bitter taste in Blake’s mouth. You begin to understand that Bad Blake is the singer/songwriter and Tommy Sweet is the performer. And while the criticism isn’t that overt, it is present. Blake and the film both do not want to talk about it, refusing Jean’s queries as to his opinions about the current industry and Tommy Sweet.
Still, there is the question about what inspires one’s Art. Blake’s lifestyle generates all kinds of material, and he draws inspiration like air into his worn lungs. And this ability to compose true country lyrics and sounds is a commodity. The industry and Tommy are eager for this resource. Country music is all about sincerity, after all. right? I know Crazy Heart is.
Roger Ebert observes in his review that “this is a rare story that knows people don’t always forget those who helped them on the way up.” This is true as Tommy Sweet determinedly fights on his mentor’s behalf. Nor does Blake disregard his predecessors, the long-time friendship with Wayne (Robert Duvall), or his beautiful but broken time with Jean. The impact of those people in their lives is felt, fully acknowledged and never without debt, nor is it capable of being separated from one’s art anymore than it is able to be separated from one’s future.
Jeff Bridges sings, having been coached, and he is magnificently credible. He is reliably brilliant. You truly forget he is an actor Jeff Bridges for the space of the film. Colin Farrell sings as well, and all I could think when he was talking and singing was where did he put that accent of his, and where was he keeping his arrogance? The cast stays small and is wonderfully played by all concerned. Even Jean’s son is so damn sweet and casual.
The camera isn’t interested in looking away from the degradation behind the grandeur that is a well-crafted work of art; in fact, it anticipates it. Where a fall may seem inevitable, the camera is waiting; which will not leave the film with a shiny red bow. It cannot, must not, subvert the realism it works so hard to capture (without the grainy, shaky documentary technique—bless them). That the camera rests at a distance at the end, as Blake and Jean converse, is not only to round out the film with the vista to rival the opening of the film. It seems to be unsure as to what comes next, and hope lives in those spaces.
Even if you are not a fan of country music (early or late), Crazy Heart will have a few things to interest you. There is a question of authenticity, the self-destructive reach of Art and loneliness, the changing and unchanging faces of culture and its humanity. And there is the acting. That most (if not every) review begins with Jeff Bridges presence and performance in the film is completely justified after viewing. He alone is worth the 112 running minutes of your time. But I think you will find more. Redemption doesn’t come easy in this film, but it is there.
Directed and Written by Scott Cooper
Based on Crazy Heart by Thomas Cobb
Produced by Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Judy Cairo, T-Bone Burnett, Jeff Bridges (executive), Michael A. Simpson (executive), Eric Brenner (executive), Leslie Belzberg (executive)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall
Music by Stephen Bruton, T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham
Cinematography Barry Markowitz
Editing by John Axelrad
Running Time: 112 minutes