I rarely make it to the theaters for first-run movies. This is usually due in large part to the fact that I need to be convinced to spend almost $10 to see a film that I know I can probably get much cheaper on DVD through Netflix or my local library. I don’t usually regret this decision, but that may be the case after settling down to watch Crazy Heart last night.
The first chords of world-weary Bad Blake’s (Jeff Bridges) whiskey-inspired songbook provide the soundtrack to the striking New Mexico landscape. The expansive sky reveals an incomparably rich blue, studded with the whispy illusions of clouds. The endless roads wind their way through this rocky country, leading Bad toward his next gig, hundreds of miles away from his last. Bridges’ portrayal of Blake reveals an unapologetic drunk who still manages to make an appearance at his concerts, even if he has to run out midway to vomit the toxins that have been coursing through his bloodstream day after day. He has obviously seen better days but somehow manages to not convey the bitterness that so often befalls entertainers in the last throes of their careers. As long as Blake can get drunk and laid once in awhile, he seems content to let life continue as it has been for these last few years.
Not too long after this introduction, Blake meets an accompanying piano player in Santa Fe and agrees to an interview with the man’s niece (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a local newspaper. Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), recently divorced with a young son, presents herself as someone who knows a bit of Blake’s world-weariness. Her bad luck with men has not hardened her attitude toward them, but rather seems to have made her all the more vulnerable. She and Blake obviously like each other, although Blake’s initial flirtation appears to be born more out of animal instinct than any developing emotional entanglement. They both seem to recognize the emptiness in each other’s lives and are drawn to that — if not to fill it, then at least to ease some of that loneliness for a little while. The performances of Bridges and Gyllenhaal succeed in making this love story so much more tangible than a mere plotline. It is obvious that both characters approach the situation tentatively, first as almost something of a one-night stand, and gradually building into a friendship more than anything else. Sex is not some perfunctory benefit of their time together, but rather an outlet for both of them to find some kind of comfort without the judgments of family. While their sexual relationship is obviously not going to last the length of the film, it is clear that they do love one another and probably will always have that lifelong regard.
As I mentioned above, the soundtrack to this film is truly phenomenal. Jeff Bridges has done some previous musical work and provides his own vocals. His voice perfectly marries the raw talent of early country music with the indescribable beauty of the film’s locations in the Southwest. His music carries the purity and genuine simplicity that is mirrored by and also contrasted with Blake’s approach to life. He is a broken-down drunk, yes, but he never denies this fact. And with this same honesty and conviction, he turns his life around by getting sober and penning the film’s title song for Jane. Colin Farrell plays a supporting role as Tommy Sweet, who represents young country music and has eclipsed Blake’s celebrity, even though he readily admits his debt to Blake’s musical teaching and guidance. Sweet’s character is without a doubt something of an essential addition to the plot of this film, if only to show how far Blake’s star has fallen and the very real trends in country music today. Honestly, Sweet could have been played by almost any other actor and have been as effective as Farrell’s portrayal. I guess I haven’t seen Farrell in very much so I am unable to compare his performance here with an array of other films, but I suspect that my conclusions would doubtlessly be the same. He does provide his own vocals for the film, just as Bridges does, but they are at best average. Mediocre is probably a better assessment.
It’s refreshing to witness a doomed love story that doesn’t fall into the trite traps of tragedy and self-consumption that make for good box office rather than substantial storyline. More often than not, chance encounters do not necessarily work out for the long run, but almost always have the potential to provide some meaning for those involved beyond the physical relationship itself. In the case of Crazy Heart, they can be a literally sobering experience and a foundation from which to reach for better things.