During those long, dull days of winter break, I watch a lot of Country Music Television. I used to disdain the channel until I caught one magical hour of “I Want to be a High School Cheerleader Again,” and from then on I was hooked on CMT’s country-fried, reality-soaked programming. Therefore, I was simply doggoned to discover that the film Crazy Heart, which has so far earned a deluge of awards for its stars and crew, is a CMT original movie that has determinedly limped its way onto the big screen. Jeff Bridges does some of the best work of his career here. The film is artful, grizzly, and painfully honest in its slow and gentle journey.
As washed-up country-western musician Bad Blake, Bridges retains the stained pants and scruff of The Dude but none of his zen charm. Bad is a weary, self-destructive man whose despair stems from his sense of disconnect with his former self. “I used to be somebody, now I’m somebody else,” he rasps onstage, churning out third-rate performances at seedy bars. Bad’s life is a colorless and dirty series of motel rooms, long car rides, and drunken nights spent fist fighting or alone. Bridges is pitch-perfect, painting a picture of a ruined champion with a wrenching pathos that evokes Mickey Rourke’s iconic role in The Wrestler. Bridges is a master at bringing inner fire to beaten and subdued characters, playing dead while still allowing himself small moments of expressiveness and joy.
Those tiny cracks in Bad’s depressed, gruff exterior widen considerably after his encounter with timid journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Jean interviews Bad for a story and the two hesitantly begin to grow close. Their attraction is initially complicated by Bad’s persistent anger issues and self-deprecation, but for the sake of his burgeoning connection with Jean and her young son, Bad launches himself on an upward trajectory. He renews his professional relationship with a former mentee, rising country star Tommy Sweet (a slick and charismatic Colin Farrell), breathing new life into his stalled music career and hope into his desolate and lonely existence.
However, Bad’s demons nearly derail his progress, and the subsequent journey he takes to regain that tantalizing bit of happiness reveals that a man of great resolve has been lying dormant within. Bad has a complex and disorganized psychology, fluctuating between wild extremes, and his gradual climb toward stability and contentment is deeply powerful.
Crazy Heart’s structure mirrors Bad’s uneven journey a little too closely and does not supply Bad with the wholly unique narrative that he deserves. That Bridges shines beyond the formulaic tale of redemption is a credit to his immersion in Bad’s mind space. Gyllenhaal is typically cute, but has played the “quirky love interest” so many times that reading those words next to her name must make her want to throw up a little by now. In fact, her Jean is a calm and enchanting grail for Bad to reach, but as a stand-alone character she comes across as weak, even insecure and evasive. This is a shame, because I wanted Bad to find a truly appropriate romantic counterpart. However, Bridges’ scenes with Farrell provide far more engaging and deftly expository dialogue, and they always manage to lift the story back out of sentimentality.
Crazy Heart is a special film, excavating a complex protagonist while also gently outlining both the edgy subculture of homegrown country music and a sweet love story. If for nothing else, see this film for Bridges’ performance, which puts him squarely in the running for an Oscar and proves that his unshaven, compelling presence has real staying power on the silver screen.