Some of cinemas most satisfying experiences can be found in small, quiet movies. The kind that don’t bowl you over with strength of their story, but rather the subtle unwrapping of their soul. Films whose strengths expand on the accessibility of its characters thanks in large part to actors who lose themselves in their roles. Crazy Heart is one of those films and Jeff Bridges is one of those actors.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Crazy Heart, you’ve sampled its flavor. Crazy Heart wears its emotions on its sleeve, gently allowing the audience into a simple country song captured on film: a story about a washed-up drunk, love and aching redemption. Crazy Heart‘s emotionally resounding strength lies in its ability to avoid the kind of heavy-handed drama easily injected into a film about real-life blues, real-life mistakes and the man who succumbs to them. At times, Crazy Heart‘s events hint perilously close to cliche, but director and writer Scott Cooper, propelled almost single-handedly by Jeff Bridges, delivers an emotionally rich character arc that kindly averts the easy ledge and keeps things both authentically grounded and achingly real.
Set in the world of “true” country music– not its highly polished, pop star crossover cousin– Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), is a wasting man. He’s never without a drink or a cigarette and sucks them down without regard. Bad (as he likes to be called) is a hard-drinking, hard-living singer/songwriter who’s resigned himself to a life of bottom shelf venues and the kind of star power that’s dimly reflected off a shining day decades past. Driving himself from one dive to the next in his weathered ’78 Suburban, Bad Blake is kind-hearted and generous to his fans, but hardly so with himself– drinking and puking his way to certain oblivion until an act of fan service leads him to a savior in Jean Craddock (Oscar-nominated Maggie Gyllenhall) and her young son.
In spite of his self-imposed isolation, abuse and despair, Bad Blake is the beneficiary of an incredible network of love and support that surrounds him on all sides. Through the murk of his self-destruction, Bad Blake offhandedly rejects and resents the life lines repeatedly offered by his apprentice-turned super star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrel), a slick-talking manager and old friend Wayne (the always delightfully earthy Robert Duvall). Both a refreshing and tender achievement, everyone in Bad Blake’s life has his best interests in mind and all work, in one way or another, to deliver it. In Bad’s world, the only villain is his alcoholism.
Jeff Bridges, as always, is an indulgent watch as he walks Bad Blake’s highs and lows with tender, kind eyes and rough, weathered features. It’s a role that seems tailor made for Bridges if only because he embraces it so fully. Bridges is so earnest in Bad’s defeatism and so hopeful and warm in its alleviation, when he sheepishly utters the would-be embarrassing line, “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look” it feels achingly, pleadingly and vulnerably sincere. And so goes his performance– it’s a ride that’s authentic and fully deserving of the Oscar he’ll place on his mantle March 7.
Gyllenhall, as Bad Blake’s savior, believably and at times unconventionally, portrays single mom Jean Craddock– a woman who appreciates Bad’s earnest charms, but finds herself emotionally exasperated by his whiskey-soaked demons. There’s sad irony in the relationship, but its one that works hard at redeeming Bad Blake even as it forgoes convention. Jean’s arc never veers into Grecian tragedy or larger than life drama, but steadily courses through the genuine emotions of a loving mother battling her needs and the needs of her child amidst the low-key triggers of discovering the one she thought was right might not be.
Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett contribute raspy, melancholy and soul-extracted country for the movie– music that fits the life Bad Blake has lived and tells us volumes about his past and how he views himself. The music isn’t toe-tappingly transcendental or studio fabricated to birth a cottage industry off the soundtrack, but remains fervent and fulfilling. The title track, “The Weary Kind”, is one that’s sung over and over throughout the film, but never wears out its welcome.
Crazy Heart’s only bobble comes in a predictable late second act controversy that steers toward eye-rolling convention but comes just shy of embracing it. The third act satisfactorily and realistically resolves the conflict in a way that’s both true to life and touchingly bittersweet– which is the joy of watching of this film. Crazy Heart feels airily uncontrived, personal and– I keep going back to this– wholly honest.
Crazy Heart is a quiet movie that both breaks your heart and heals it. It’s certainly an easy comparison to last year’s The Wrestler, but Crazy Heart rejects sad resignation in a realistically sanguine tale about the healing touch of earnest humanity. With that ember, Crazy Heart shows life is never so inert as to deny resuscitation and through its winding journey, pieces that may be lost along the way don’t negate a life well lived– even if it’s one that starts at twilight.