Crazy Heart is a stunningly self-assured debut feature written and directed by Scott Cooper. It’s confident, steady work that wisely foregrounds its lead performance, which also happens to be its best asset. If at worst the film seems to be cliché, it serves to remind us that some peoples’ lives sound like a cliché. There’s a specificity to the film that keeps it honest, especially in the deeply felt and tenderly wrought performance from Jeff Bridges as “Bad” Blake, an alcoholic country singer whose glory days are a couple of decades behind him. Here is a character that feels real despite being a familiar type. As the film ends, with two characters literally walking into the sunset, there’s a feeling that the film may be ending, but the characters will continue to exist, pulling their weary selves through one more day, one more week, and one more song.
At its most interesting the film is a portrait of the modern country music scene with a striking dichotomy between the raw, intimate singer-songwriter style and the super-slick productions that border on pop. In the film, Blake’s protégé (Colin Farrell) illuminates this difference. He has surpassed his mentor in popularity and success, selling out huge arenas while Blake fills dive bars and bowling alleys. The difference is one of glittery buses on one side and beat-up pickups on the other. And yet, there is no demonization of this difference. Its matter of fact interesting and it leads up to a brilliant set of scenes in the center of the film that play out with beautiful ease. Bridges and Farrell flesh in back-story in a natural, unforced way, not through exposition, necessarily, but through acting and tone. We get a sense of their history and their friendship without any kind of forced conflict or tension, and especially without pages of on-the-nose dialogue. Neither man is a villain. Neither man is a hero. They simply are.
This respect extends to the other relationship that is central to the film. The radiant Maggie Gyllenhaal is a small-town reporter who falls for “Bad” Blake. She sees through the grizzled exterior and spies the soul of a true artist. He begins to work on a new song that might provide a needed boost to his income. We hear snippets of lyrics and melody for at least half of the film. Only at the very end do we hear a character slowly strumming a guitar, rasping out the words until the sound and scene segues into a full-blown country-radio version played by another character which carries us into the end credits with the feeling of artistic accomplishment. We have seen a great new song develop before our very eyes and ears.
If the relationship between Bridges and Gyllenhaal feels a little forced, and it does, it’s never the fault of the actors, who bring to their roles a bone-deep sense of characterization. Bridges, especially, brings a sense of seriousness and depth to characterization with a performance that’s worn comfortably. The late addition of a character played by the unmatchable Robert Duvall only adds to this feeling of expertly performed roles. The plot may grind them down in sometimes tired ways, but they never let it feel false. This is a film that is respectful and intelligent with well-earned sentiment. It left me with a deeply felt sense of satisfaction that settled comfortably upon me as the credits began to roll.