“I’ve been drunk most of my life.” These words are spoken by Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) late in the deep, dark character study that is Crazy Heart. Mr. Bridges maintains a quiet but disturbing intensity throughout the film in the lead role as an accomplished country singer-songwriter who is past his prime. He is a man with near-genius songwriting skills, but no tools at all for sustaining a relationship in the real world.
Pic opens with Bad driving up to a bowling alley and stepping out of a rust trap vehicle with his pants open and emptying a plastic milk jug full of urine onto the parking lot. It’s his way of protesting his agent’s booking practices. Bad is in the later phase of his life now and his alcohol addiction has trapped him into playing a maze of small joints across the dusty southwest. He doesn’t like it one bit, having once played arenas and stadiums. He’s bitter about his current life, but thankful he’s not completely out of the game, and wants to make a fresh start. Despite having some nasty vices, he has one very big thing on his side. Most people he meets these days love his music and by extension Bad himself.
Enter Jean Craddack (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young, aspiring journalist who wants to write a story about Bad’s life for the local paper. She digs for how he learned music, who’s really “country” and where the songs come from. She rakes over a sore spot bringing up Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Tommy, a much younger man, was Bad’s partner early on and the two ended up on different roads. Tommy is the big star and Bad is the has been. This tension is present throughout the film and is the catalyst for the stories’ outcome.
Jean, a single mother of a four year old boy, falls in love with Bad’s artistic gifts. It’s an emotional time for here as she knows her feelings for Bad are at cross purposes with what’s best for her son. Bad’s drinking and smoking habits are overlooked at first, but later on they become a wedge in their relationship.
Director Scott Cooper uses a straightforward filmmaking style, letting the script, music and actors carry the story, which is the right choice for this film. His mark comes in carefully placed, symbolic touches. Bad’s motel room doors are frequently turquoise; Jean wears heart-shaped turquoise earrings. His skill at weaving these details into the story lets us forgive some of the more conveniently staged choices; like a phone booth on a deserted stretch of highway.
Eventually Bad finds himself opening for Tommy, something he loathes. Just before the performance they meet for lunch and afterwards in the parking lot, they recount the pressures on their lives that drove them apart. It could just as easily been a throw away scene, but Mr. Cooper seizes this chance to give us a glimpse into the pressures of being popular musicians constantly on the road. We learn everything we need to know about their relationship in three minutes. It makes the final scene even more satisfying.
Crazy Heart is a small film with a familiar story, but strong performances. Mr Bridges is solid as the tortured artist and Ms. Gyllenhaal is effective in her portrayal of a small town girl with a career goal and a wish to give better chances to her son. Both performances have been recognized with Academy Award nominations. But the music, more than anything else, makes this picture work. T. Bone Burnett guides the soundtrack and writes songs performed by Mr. Bridges and Mr. Farrell. The song, “The Weary Kind” co-written by Mr. Burnett and Ryan Bingham is up for an Oscar for best original song.
If you like Mr. Bridges you may actually not like this film. He is not playing the dashing role here. But if you enjoy gritty, real-life movies that rely on dialogue and performances, and appreciate genuine country music, then go for it.
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.