I’m giving first-time director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart four stars because I think it deserves them, not because I personally liked it. I didn’t care for it. I’m not keen on country music, and I’ve seen enough late-in-the-day stories for a lifetime about the personal redemption of characters I don’t actually relate to. Plus, I’ve seen them done better. Both Tender Mercies (1983) and The Wrestler (2008) come immediately to mind. In fact, the country-music aspect and the presence of Robert Duvall virtually defy you not to compare Crazy Heart to Tender Mercies—and in most respects, this is not in the favor of the new film. In one respect, however, it may be. That respect—as you have likely heard—is Jeff Bridges.
Bridges’ performance as the washed-up, alcoholic country singer “Bad” Blake has been called “fearless,” which is really nothing but a fancy way of saying that it’s a completely unself-conscious one. In other words, Bridges has no trouble showing his age, his out-of-shape body or just generally being as unglamorous as possible. While that shows a certain amount of commitment, it doesn’t by any means ensure a great performance. In fact, it’s just as likely to result in an embarrassing one, but not this time. It’s not the glamming down that does it; it’s the unaffected honesty. While the screenplay for Crazy Heart doesn’t always ring true, Bridges does.
The film essentially follows a standard trajectory. Star on the skids with a drinking problem gets a shot at redemption—partly through the love of a woman—and he struggles, fails and then picks himself up. It’s nothing new under the sun and its various embellishments are hardly inspired. The central love interest with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is not entirely persuasive. It’s difficult to see the appeal Blake has for her and the screenplay does nothing to fill in the blanks. It’s ultimately as if the romance exists simply because it’s essential to the story arc. Gyllenhaal is occasionally able to pull it together, but the tonal shifts required by the screenplay ultimately defeat her.
In contrast, the scenes between Blake and his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) work extremely well. As with Bridges’ performance, there’s a sense of honesty that underlies their admittedly limited time together on-screen. The same is true in a somewhat different—and more clichéd—key concerning the scenes between Blake and his ever-faithful old friend Wayne (Robert Duvall). There’s no sense here of anything being forced to make the narrative move forward, and that certainly isn’t the case with most of the Gyllenhaal scenes.
In addition to Bridges’ performance and those of Farrell and Duvall, it’s worth noting that director Scott Cooper has also crafted a very good-looking film. Crazy Heart boasts a surprising richness of color. It also has an unusually strong sense of traditional formal composition that is quite unusual for a low-budget indie movie. It may not always be believable in terms of object placement—there’s no arguable logic in how far from a phone booth Blake parks his truck, except that it balances the image—but it’s invariably visually pleasing. It also makes for a more expensive-looking production than so much standard indie fare, and this is refreshing to encounter.
In no way is Crazy Heart a remarkable film. It is, however, a film with enough remarkable things in it to make it worth a look—even if, like me, you’ve seen more than your fair share of this particular sub-genre. Rated R for language and brief sexuality.