Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a 57-year-old broken down, burned out and physically crumbling country music legend reduced to playing in half-assed bowling alleys, small town redneck bars and honky-tonks while his protege', Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), represents the shiny new commercialized country music that fills stadiums nationwide and sells millions of records to teenybopper "country" fans who likely have never even heard of country roots legends like Lefty Frizzell or Merle Haggard Skeeter Davis. They've probably heard of Hank Williams, Sr. and Johnny Cash. Maybe.
Bad Blake is a country music cliche', a four times divorced alcoholic who abandoned his kid and likely abandoned himself years ago, as well. During a gig in Santa Fe, Blake encounters Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring reporter who doesn't so much get swept up by Blake as she simply finds, rather surprisingly, that ever elusive point where two human beings connect with one another. As Jean interviews Blake in this broken down hotel room late one night, he looks at her with those still half sparkling eyes as she tries to gently weave the interview into a delicate subject and says "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look" and, oh my, how he truly means it.
Before you start thinking "I don't even like country music" or "Not another broken down musician story," I implore you to wait.
While it would be easy to dismiss "Crazy Heart" with such an observation, to do so would be to miss what may truly be the greatest leading performance from 2009, a performance from Bridges that is so vulnerable and so completely transparent that one will feel the presence of Bad Blake from head to toe hours after the closing credits have rolled. What could have easily been a tired, cliche' filled story feels vibrant and fresh and alive in the hands of Bridges and, to a lesser degree, co-stars Gyllenhaal and Farrell.
Bad Blake and Jean begin a sort of slow dance with one another, acutely aware of the undeniable spark yet equally aware of wounds from previous hurts that can flare up at a moments' notice. Both Bridges and Gyllenhaal create an uneasy relationship, a relationship where they clearly care for one another and yet first time writer/director Scott Cooper wisely maintains the awareness that attraction isn't nearly enough and there are reasons these two never quite seem to fit with one another.
Yet, it is with Jean and, perhaps even moreso with her young son, that Bad Blake begins to discover the spark that had long been buried underneath the alcoholic daze left over from his nightly bottle of McClure's and his latest one-night stand with a groupie almost as burnt out as him. The fact that Gyllenhaal and Bridges can masterfully balance both the intellectual and the sensory is astounding, the fact that Cooper creates the written words that allow it all to gel gives birth to a poignant, touching and remarkably satisfying story adapted from a book by Thomas Cobb.
Colin Farrell, who continues to marvel when he sticks to the more alternative indie fare that allows him to truly act, is almost as uncomfortable as Jean, a world famous country crooner who offers a respectful reverence to Bad Blake while maintaining a healthy distance. In what is essentially an unbilled performance, Farrell serves up an award-worthy turn as a stylish, slick country singer somewhat resembling Tim McGraw. While his slickness is undeniable, he's also smart enough to know that Bad Blake writes kick ass songs and, indeed, there's a rootsiness to Farrell's Tommy Sweet that is remarkable.
Equally remarkable is the fact that both Bridges and Farrell both do their singing and, somewhat surprisingly, they're both pretty darn good with Bridges having a weathered, gruff style while Farrell's vocal stylings are appropriately much more pop sounding. T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, Bruton died of cancer at Burnett's home during the filming of "Crazy Heart," are responsible for much of the film's music and it's unimaginable that this year's Oscar-winning tune won't come from this soundtrack, due out from New West Records on January 19th.
Co-producer Robert Duvall has a small role here as a longtime friend and confidante of Bad Blake's, and "Crazy Heart" may bring to mind Duvall's own "Tender Mercies" from 1983. While there are certainly hints of "Tender Mercies," the entire cast and crew of "Crazy Heart" make this a film unto its own and an unforgettable one in its own right.
It's unthinkable that Bridges won't walk away with the Oscar this year for his performance here as Bad Blake, a transformation so convincing that even as one watches the closing credits roll it's impossible to not want the journey with Bad Blake and, for that matter, the rest of these characters to continue. Bridges has four previous Oscar nominations to his credit and, mark my words, number five will be a win.
While neither Gyllenhaal nor Farrell is likely to experience that same level of awards success, it would be an injustice if "Crazy Heart" didn't pick up a Best Picture nomination along with nods for its music, adapted screenplay and, perhaps, in a couple other tech categories.
In a year in which Rob Marshall attempted to recreate his "Chicago"success with "Nine" only to have audiences yawn and turn the other way, "Crazy Heart" may very well possess much closer to the heart and soul of the vastly underrated "Once," a film that one the Oscar for Best Original Song a couple years back for co-stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Weathered and worn, wondrous and welcoming, "Crazy Heart" is without a doubt one of the best films of 2009.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic