A colleague of mine recently suggested that playing a boozy, washed-up country singer is the male equivalent of the hooker with a heart of gold. He may be right, but that doesn't mean that Jeff Bridges' performance in Crazy Heart is any less affecting. Writer-director Scott Cooper has effectively captured the essence of obsessive self-destruction, as well as the self-indulgent verisimilitude that drives artists to blur or obliterate the lines between life and art. Bolstered by galvanizing performances by Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the woman whose own self destruction comes in the form of love for the wrong kind of man, Crazy Heart tells a powerful if sometimes familiar story that ranks as one of the year's best films.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a penniless 57-year-old country singer who hasn't recorded in years and spends months on the road performing at any venue that will pay him, no matter how small. (It feels like no small irony that for Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski, a bowling alley was a safe haven from the pressures of a conformist world, and here it's a sure sign his career has struck a dead end.) Struggling through even that low-pressure performance thanks to his seemingly endless consumption of whiskey, Blake appeals to his agent for something better. But when he arrives at his next gig, he discovers two surprising new developments: a job as an opener for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a big-league country star he once coached, and a new romance with Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a local music writer who falls for him during an interview.
Slowly rebuilding both his personal and professional prospects, Blake begins to come to terms with the life he's lived – for better or for worse. But when his drinking creates a rift in his burgeoning relationship with Jean, Blake begins to realize that it's not enough to acknowledge how his behavior has affected others; if he's really going to find the success he's looking for, he's going to have to do something about it.
Although there are plenty of older films that examine more or less the same characters, including Tender Mercies, which starred Robert Duvall (who plays a supporting role here as well as produces the film), Bridges is the anchor that holds the emotional and artistic stakes of Crazy Heart in place: offering a fearlessly unselfconscious performance that revels as much in the unattractiveness of his alcoholism as the charm that allows friends and loved ones to ignore it, the actor finds the self-destructiveness of Blake but allows his self-awareness to become a meaningful journey rather than a foregone destination. Further, he not only sings his character's song himself, he imbues them with the substance and depth of a hard-lived life and a hard-won perspective that gratifyingly gains resonance once he starts more genuinely examining himself.
Meanwhile, Gylllenhaal has probably never looked better in a film – Cooper's camera, augmented by Barry Markowitz' cinematography, absolutely and understandably loves her – but she gives one of the best performances of her career, showing not only how her character succumbs to Blake's charms, but convinces us to as well. That said, there is a sense that we want to know what it is that draws her into him, albeit more because we want to know about her history and about their chemistry than because of a deficiency of the storytelling. But telling lines of dialogue suggest that her attraction is born of some past pattern of behavior, some conflicted impulse within her that knows the difference between right and wrong guys but still can't make the better decision, and Gyllenhaal captures the self-torment, awareness, and eventually, actualization of a mother who learns the hard way how to take care of herself and her family.
Further, Farrell, contributes a modest but effective turn as Tommy Sweet, a character who could have been a villainous douchebag but here is both respectful and thoughtful as the protégé who overshadowed his mentor. And as best friend to Blake, Duvall lends bowlegged authenticity to a guy who wants his buddy to get cleaned up and yet still wants him to play every night at his bar.
Something that might be worth examining more deeply is the film's analysis of a longtime, decidedly American archetype – a self-made, self-destructive man consumed by his love or obsession – and the reasons that we seem not only love stories about these characters, but the characters themselves. But writer-director Cooper makes the right decisions in documenting Blake's deterioration and reconstruction, including giving him greater understanding of himself while showing him the cost of learning that lesson, that even as familiar or conventional as much of the story may be, it feels believable, and moreover, compelling.
Finally, there's the music, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett and written by Burnett, Stephen Bruton and newcomer Ryan Bingham (not to be confused with the protagonist of Jason Reitman's Up In the Air). In short, the songs are gorgeous, instant classics, thanks to their timeless simplicity, elegant musicality, and a delicate edge of late 1960s-early '70s country grit, the combination of which evokes a golden era of country music that precedes today's pop iteration, feels authentic for Blake's character, and crafts a few new standards in the process.
But then again, it's that combination of poetry, pain and history that makes even the movie's most familiar aspects work so well, whether it's in the music, the performances or the story itself. In fact, it's like Blake himself says it when he's casually bringing Jean to tears with one of his beautiful songs: that's the way it is with good ones – you're sure you've heard them before. Even if you've heard or seen it before, Crazy Heart is unquestionably one of the good ones.