Theatrical Review: CRAZY HEART
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell
Writer/Director: Scott Cooper
Studio: Fox Searchlight
If the premise of Scott Cooper’s terrific directorial debut CRAZY HEART seems all too familiar, it’s because the stories of country music rebels of the seventies and eighties are ingrained in the American psyche. While movies about alcoholic, drug addled ne’er do-well country stars are few and far between, the real-life tales of these hard-living troubadours live on in the haggard, cracked faces of people like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver. The rest are told in barroom tales of yesteryear and even more are written on the tombstones of people like Johnny Cash, Blaze Foley, and Townes Van Zandt. Don’t even get me started on the Hank Williams triumvirate. Country music now is shiny, clean, and homogenized and any hint of bad behavior is played with a wink, a nod, and a paycheck from whatever alcohol sponsor wants a piece of the action. But for the real country outlaws, their tough lives lived on the road are things of legend. Bad Blake (Bridges), the drunken, chain-smoking road warrior protagonist of CRAZY HEART is a solidly constructed representation of a dying breed.
Once a big country star, Blake is now relegated to crappy gigs at bowling alleys and two-bit saloons. Every once in a while he’ll luck out and get a nicely formed backing band at a bar or club that loves and respects him. But the only thing Blake respects is the road, his whiskey, and a non-stop string of cigarettes. His glory days behind him, Blake staggers along puking his guts out backstage, passing out in a cheap hotel, and waking up early to do it all again. That is until he meets sweet young thing Jean (Gyllenhaal) and he makes a last attempt to bring meaning to his life by attempting a relationship with her and her young son.
As I said, this all might seem like something you’ve seen before and if you’ve seen the incredible TENDER MERCIES or the obscure Rip Torn country music drunkards dream PAYDAY, you might have. But those two films are over two decades old and to say CRAZY HEART is ripping off these films is just plain lazy and extremely shortsighted. CRAZY HEART is a film that wears all its homages, character conflations, and influences on its tattered blue jeans for the whole world to see. Bridges looks and moves like Kris Kristofferson and behaves like the late, great Waylon Jennings. But rather than hide that, the film busts out Jennings’ classic ode to the shit state of country music “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way” at a critical part of the film where Blake meets his protégé Tommy Sweet (Farrell) who has gone on to be a well maintained country music sell-out who’s rolling in dough. Later, Blake’s best friend Wayne (Duvall) sings a song by Billy Joe Shaver about seeking redemption in order to show his compadre that what he’s feeling isn’t the first time someone who has repeatedly fucked up throughout life has sought redemption only to have it thrown in their face. The music in the film, including that performed by Bad Blake (and actually performed by Jeff Bridges) gives a humble nod to the people Blake is based on.
Obviously, I’m a big fan of all the back stories that went into creating Bad Blake and CRAZY HEART, but setting all that aside, this is still a wonderful movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal has never seemed more radiant and happy in a role but she’s not afraid to let herself crumble as she falls for the impossible-to-love Blake. Bridges is fantastic as Bad Blake and I normally don’t fall for actors who roughen up their image, gain weight, and play outside of themselves. It always rings so false to me but here, Bridges becomes Blake and I almost immediately forgot that he was once “The Dude.” And for all the obvious dramatic scenes in this film, it’s also very funny, sweet and at times tension filled. While Blake doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body, he’s fueled by alcohol, self-absorption, and self-loathing while all the while seemingly bent on destroying himself like any good legend of rebel country star should have done long ago. Even if he doesn’t mean to, these things affect those around him and it’s damn near cringe worthy to watch the wheels come off any given scene.
The story of CRAZY HEART is a simple one but the acting, music and simple realities throughout make it a special experience. It’s just a little film at heart but carries weight for days after you see it. As one of my favorite modern day folkies Todd Snider recently sang “how do you know when it’s too late to learn?” CRAZY HEART wonders the same thing and we all root for Blake to wake up and smell the coffee.
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