It’s been a long time since a film has gripped me, but Crazy Heart really got me. The poignant, often gut-wrenching story follows the story of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)—a washed-up country singer who drowns his troubles in a bottle and staggers haltingly from show to seedy show. He is so broke he can’t even buy his favorite whisky and even in the middle of a performance has to rush outside to vomit up his excess. Bridges’ Blake is genuinely repulsive—fat, unkempt, and selfish—and it is nearly impossible to see any spark of life or hope in the man.
Bad’s endeavor to change is catalyzed by an encounter with young journalist Jean Craddock who approaches him for an interview at one of the dives where he is playing. Maggie Gyllenhaal comes out of her usual simpering self to deliver a credible performance as Jean, the single mother and aspiring journalist who is looking for a father for herself as much as for her son Buddy. Her interest in and romance with Bad rouses him to hitch up his pants and button his shirt, and eventually—after many twists and turns—turn his life around.
Bridges’ Bad Blake is downright brilliant. He is gruff and greedy, capable of showing searing pain and vulnerability as he portrays Blake’s fumbling attempts to live a decent life and overcome his alcoholism. His slow transformation and especially the revelation of his charisma and musical gift is riveting. Initially I thought Bridges must be drawing on personal experience of substance abuse, but as it turns out he is just a good actor. Imagine.
If there is anything that doesn’t quite ring true in the film, it’s the way Jean falls for Bad. He is, after all, old, overweight, and alcoholic and yet she easily climbs into his bed on the second encounter. The fact of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s gorgeous looks and innate sophistication make it all the more improbable that a woman like her would go for Bad despite his charm and her lonely circumstances. Yet in the end Jean turns out to be the more desperate and needy of the two.
After Bad has got sober and returned to the concert circuit, Jean comes to see him. While she comes to get something from him—an interview and maybe the attention that she’s seeking—Bad rises above his feelings and offers to meet with her outdoors instead of in his tour bus where he could easily try to take advantage of her like he might have done before.
Crazy Heart is often touted as a tale of redemption. However, I see Bad Blake more as a sort of tragic hero whose pride in refusing to admit and face his drinking problem ultimately brings him down and causes him to lose the only people that he really cares about. The only life left to him is one of honor and loneliness. While he might be seen as a man trying to work out his redemption, in the end his task is impossible because true redemption is immediate and unearned. It’s just the walking out of the old life that takes some time.
If nothing else the film is worth a watch for the stunning scenery of the American Southwest. The soundtrack is pretty great too.