Crazy Heart

As Crazy Heart beings, a 1978 Suburban winds its way over two lane highways across lonesome western states. The opening scenes of the film feature red canyons and distant blue mountains in their best possible light, set to a slow rich drum beat and the opening chords of a forlorn country song. We get the feeling that this is going to be a sad and beautiful movie, the kind that makes us think maybe we’re also enigmatic and dark, country troubadours, all of us.

Then, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) pulls into a bowling alley in a sleepy mountain town on the edge of the desert. Bad heaves himself out of the Suburban, and empties a gallon jug full of piss onto the asphalt of the parking lot. He glances around over the top of his aviators and says “A fucking bowling alley.” Whether this is nod to The Big Lebowski or not (the Coen brother’s 1998 film in which Bridges is perfect as Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski, and bowling features prominently) Bad Blake is Bridges’ best performance since The Dude, and maybe ever.

Directed by first-timer Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart picks up while Bad is midway through a tour of the southwest. He’s a has-been country singer who’s getting a little long in the tooth. His hair and beard are grizzled and unkempt, he’s got a sizable paunch and a particular fondness for McClure’s whiskey, chain smoking, and sleeping with over-the-hill groupies, not necessarily in that order. During Bad’s performance at the bowling alley, he retches into a trashcan in an alley halfway through his set, before picking his sunglasses out of the can and after a clumsy swipe with his shirttail, puts them back on his face.

Bridges is spot-on as Bad Blake, not least of all because he sings and plays like a real musician who’s seen it all and then some. Even drunk and sloppy, the moment Bridges starts playing, the chords are instantly familiar, like a song you’ve known all your life. The music is pretty damn good, and Bridge’s voice, sweet yet gravely, is its ideal accompaniment. In large part, Crazy Heart hinges on the music being believably decent: hits that old fans might come to a bowling alley decked out in their best boots and turquoise to hear.

Many of the songs in the film were written especially for the character Bad Blake and for Bridges himself. Alt-country musicians T Bone Burnett, Stephen Burton (who died of cancer right after the film was completed—Crazy Heart is dedicated to him) and Ryan Bingham put together beautiful country arrangements, slow ballads and poppy hooks alike, that are worth listening to on their own. The combination of music that’s toe-tapping or haunting (and either way, hard to get out of your head) and Blake’s character being reminiscent of country greats (Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson all come to mind) go a long way in making the story of film believable and true. There are no false notes.

On the next stop on his tour, a dive bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Blake runs into Jean Craddock (the lovely, understated Maggie Gyllenhaal) a writer trying to make it in the newspaper business. As she interviews Blake in his motel room (he shirtless, halfway through dinner and halfway drunk) their attraction to one another develops almost immediately. (One of the first things Blake says to Jean is “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.”)

While it isn’t hard to imagine why Bad might be interested in someone like Jean, her cautious, coy flirtation with him is surprising. Yet as any woman who’s fallen in love with someone she’s too young, too smart and too good for will know, it happens. It’s a testament to both Gyllenhaal and Bridges’ work that their relationship feels seamless and genuine—even when it’s awkward—from the very beginning. Jean, while not exactly a fan, cares about Blake’s music. In their initial interview (and long afterwards) she tries to piece together how Blake became what he is (boozed up, hard up, and overweight) while still retaining talent, charisma, and affability as a performer, a songwriter, and an old-timer pushing 60.

Even though she knows better, Jean brings Bad into her life, and consequently the life of her four-year-old, Buddy. Even as Buddy and Bad get on famously, making biscuits and playing at the park, and even though Bad’s burgeoning affection for Buddy is sincere, his hard-living tendencies, especially the whiskey swilling, make Jean (and the audience) ever so slightly on edge when she somewhat inexplicably lets Bad take care of her boy.

Bridges’ portrayal of Bad Blake is a delicate balance of the endearing, repulsive, and nostalgic. We see Bad oozing cowboy charm when he sings his old songs, and then glassy eyed and puffy, breathing asthmatically and waking to yet another hangover. These contradictions make Bad complex and just plain human. Bridges’ performance is nuanced enough that we want Bad Blake to be OK—even as he grosses us out and makes some serious mistakes. Few actors can pull off such a delicate combination of conviviality and vulnerability while moving through life as an almost-lost-cause.

Crazy Heart uses the work of real country stars to great effect when Bad’s not belting out his own ballads. Shortly after meeting Jean for the first time, Bad drives down to Phoenix to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), his former protégée turned mega star. We’ve heard Bad bitching to his LA manager about Tommy before we ever see him. Much of Tommy’s success has come from performing songs written by Bad Blake, and Bad reminds his manager (and us) more than once that he gave Tommy Sweet his start, even taught him to play guitar.

Now, Tommy’s raking in millions, and Bad can barely afford to take Bessie, the ’78 Suburban, in for a tune-up. As Bad pulls into the arena where he and Tommy will perform, the first lines of Waylon Jennings’ Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way start to play:

It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar

Where do we take it from here

Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars…

Somebody told me when I got to Nashville

Son you finally got it made

Old Hank made it here, we’re all sure that you will

But I don’t think Hank done it this way

I don’t think Hank done it this way

The parallel is almost too perfect: Blake parks the Suburban between two of several sleek tour busses and warily dons his cowboy hat. Tommy Sweet is famous and has an entourage and an army of roadies to prove it. He even leaves a case of McClure’s whiskey for Bad when he arrives. Like the rest of the cast, Colin Farrell is very good in his role as an “aw, shucks” kind of guy who’s made it big, and looks surprisingly sexy with his greasy salt-n-pepper ponytail. Like Bridges, he can actually sing, and his Nashville drawl is convincing.

Farrell’s first scene on set was performing live in front of 20,000 people. At a large gig in Albuquerque, real-life country singer Toby Keith agreed to let the filmmakers take over his concert for 20-minutes to shoot a couple songs in front of a huge live crowd. When Blake and Tommy Sweet duet on Fallin and Flyin(Bad’s biggest commercial success, and one of Tommy’s hits, too) their chemistry is even more palpable than Bad and Jean’s. Their voices blend, Tommy harmonizes, they swagger, and the looks they give one another are contingent with people who’ve known one another a long time. Most of us are aware that Bridges is this kind of actor, the kind you believe with all your heart, but Farrell is a pleasant surprise. Apparently, being very good in In Bruges wasn’t a one-off.

If the music of Crazy Heart is front and center, other elements of the film are subtle, elegant even. Much of the film depicts Bridges alone with his demons. The plot often moves without direct exposition.

For instance, on his first night in Santa Fe, a 40-something fan with a low-cut top and long dyed hair coquettishly gives Bad her number saying something about dinner after the show. After Jean leaves his motel room that first night, Bad sighs a little dejectedly. In one fluid motion, Bridges shrugs his shoulders, about to head off to bed, before he remembers and roots through his shirt pocket for the woman’s card. He stretches it at arm’s length with his glasses held up to his face to see the number, and glances at his watch. End scene.

Perhaps 15 seconds of body language tell us all we need to know about the evening, and Bridges does this a lot. His movements never feel studied or practiced, whether he’s passing out on the bathroom floor, working his hand up Jean’s thigh, or measuring flour and butter for biscuits with Buddy.

Next to the performances and the music, the third major element of Crazy Heartmay initially appear insubstantial: the landscape. As a native New Mexican, my fondness for Santa Fe and its environs may compromise my objectivity, but the film wouldn’t be the same if it were shot in Houston, or Nashville. (Even Bad Blake’s supposed Texas residence was shot at a house in a Santa Fe neighborhood.) It’s much more natural to associate Bad’s music with the wide open places in the West, places either unremembered or overrun until you reach the Pacific.

Sections of the film are linked by Bad driving alone on two-lane highways through desolate, striking landscapes. There’s a lot of space for one man, and the country is once intimidating and oddly soothing—its dual nature and bittersweet beauties are reflected in Bad. The songs in Crazy Heart weren’t written for Nashville, or even most of Texas — they’re for the chunk of America between Dallas and Los Angeles. The music is meant to narrate long stretches of highway you drive by yourself, sunsets at the end of movies, the vague and dusty lights coming from some far off, sleeping town.

As important as landscape may be, the essential success of Crazy Heart is two fold: we have to like the music, and we have to like Bad Blake. The movie simply wouldn’t be worth watching if Bad was washed up and just too nasty to like. In certain respects, Crazy Heart is about a man’s redemption, but the film does well not to tread too heavily, here. Robert Duvall injects a necessary thread of reality into Bad’s quest for sobriety as his old friend Wayne.

If and when Crazy Heart falls into clichés (and it does—the over-the-hill-alcoholic country singer is practically a pop culture archetype) we forgive its stereotypes because they’re so well done. Bridges performance is his own, no matter who it’s modeled after. Crazy Heart makes no apologies for being a tried and true tale. The story-telling direction is superb and the music is memorable, but Bridges, and his affection for Bad Blake, are what make the film both heartbreaking and gratifying.

The special features section is scant at best and disappointing in its brevity. We get a few deleted scenes; that’s it. Most of the scenes are unmemorable (Bad and Jean go to Taos, Bad sings an extra song) but there’s one called “Bad’s Relapse” which, if it were included, would change the tone of the entire film. In the scene, Bad is up to his old tricks—presumably post-rehab—boozing in a sleazy country joint and hooking up with a fellow elderly alcoholic, Donna.

In the final cut of the film, Bad’s recovery is unbroken for the duration of the movie. We miss out on a scene where Bridges slips in a puddle and falls on his back sobbing, and the film is much better for it. Crazy Heart does well not to linger on the 12 steps (or lack thereof) because the film is about so much more, and would falter if it became too preachy.

Because Crazy Heart has such a rich back-story (being rooted in real country music tradition, brought to the screen by a first time director) the absence of even a cursory behind-the-scenes featurette is surprising. A mini-documentary on the music alone would be a welcome addition. Even assuming the production didn’t have the funding to do this, once Crazy Heart became a critics’ favorite and Bridges won the Oscar, one would think the DVD distribution company could have thrown something together. An interview with T Bone Burnett, Scott Cooper or Bridges, a nod to the novel, anything.

RATING 8 / 10