There isn’t a major organ in country casualty Bad Blake’s body that hasn’t been abused to the brink of failure. He’s 57, and if his smoking doesn’t keep him from seeing 60, it’s very likely his drinking will. Then there’s the figurative damage done over the decades to his heart, some of it by the fates, much of it by himself. He has four ex-wives, a grown son he’s never met and a God-given talent he’s squandered. The battered ’78 Suburban he drives from gig to gig is in better shape.
He’s a wreck and a has-been, but, thanks to Jeff Bridges and first-time writer-director Scott Cooper, he is not a cliché. Once the leader of a chart-topping band and the writer of bestselling songs, Bad has been reduced to playing his honky-tonk hits in rinky-dink dives. The film’s opening scene tells us almost everything we need to know about his present lot. Belt dangling from his unbuckled pants, he pours a plastic jug of pee on the parking lot of the joint he’s playing that night and groans, “Shit. A fuckin’ bowling alley.” Then makes a beeline for its bar.
The performer’s road takes an unexpected turn a night or two later in Santa Fe. As a favor to the pianist in his pickup band, he agrees to an interview with the fellow’s niece, an aspiring journalist named Jean, played brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The sessions take place at Bad’s one-star motel and aren’t what either expects. The young woman knows enough about the history of country music both to impress her subject and be more than a little in awe of him. He’s smitten before he even knows what’s hit him. “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look,” he interjects at one point. The script is loaded with killer lines like that.
What Bad Blake does not want to talk about is former-sideman-turned-superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Something soured the relationship during a tour the two did together years earlier. We never learn what. Conditioned by decades of formula filmmaking, we expect the former protégé to be a pompous, ungrateful upstart. In just one of several ways Crazy Heart defies convention, Farrell’s character proves warm and deferential when their paths eventually cross. He doesn’t just sing Bad’s songs. He sings his praises.
The story takes a number of other surprising twists, but I’ll resist the temptation to go all spoiler on you in my enthusiasm. Suffice it to say almost nothing turns out the way you initially think it will. And then, of course, on top of a story that almost never strikes a false note, the film features the soundtrack and lead performance of the year.
As a rule, you couldn’t pay me to listen to country, but there’s something about the original music written for the movie by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton that transcends the genre. It’s haunting, filled with hard-won truth and catchy as hell, all at the same time. The actors do their own singing and, if you ask me, should have gotten as much attention at the Grammys as they’re sure to at the Oscars.
Which brings us to Jeff Bridges, who appears certain to walk away with his first statuette after four nominations. It’s the performance of his career — and he’s given some great ones. Rarely are characters brought to such believable life down to the smallest detail, and what makes his work here even more remarkable is that he was seriously wracked by the flu through most of the shoot. Spend a couple of hours in the company of Bad Blake. I feel certain you’ll agree this portrait of a cowboy poet hitting bottom stars an artist at the top of his game.