REVIEW: Crazy Heart [2009]

“Funny how falling feels like flying, even for a little while”

Life ain’t no place for the weary kind. Just ask Bad Blake. Here is a man that acts from the soul every step of the way, however, it’s one that has been ravaged and decimated from a life of alcoholism and chain-smoking. Able to compose a song that will resonate for decades to come just by picking up his guitar, Blake is the sort of enigma that means well, but can never clean up enough to achieve. A legend to the people who know ‘real country’; teacher and mentor to the younger crowd’s new heartthrob superstar in Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet; and a has-been, screw-up that’s four times divorced and estranged from the one son he has for over 25 years, this man is in desperate need of a wake-up call. The question that looms over Crazy Heart, as a result, is whether or not Bad deserves to be redeemed. We want to root for the underdog, but when that long shot is a drunkard on the fast track to oblivion, you have to ask if the world would be better off. And that’s where Jeff Bridges comes in with one of the best turns of the year. His ability to be sympathetic while completely selfish cannot be overlooked, making us shake our head when he does wrong, but always hold out hope that things will turn around.

Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, writer/director Scott Cooper chose a winner for his debut behind the camera. With all the hoopla over Bridges this award season, it was easy to forget about the film itself, which is a mistake. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting too much, especially with the comparisons to The Wrestler. Now I can see the parallels, but the two are totally different films—well, maybe not totally. What sets them apart is how Bad Blake can succeed if only he took the time to do it. Resentful of his protégé for finding fame and fortune, he has taken himself out of the limelight, refusing to believe he can write a new song, but unable to do anything except play. Even after headlining bowling alleys and dive bars, the prospect of opening for Sweet at a 12,000-capacity venue completely disgusts him; he is too prideful to take a backseat and realize when a helping hand is being extended. Alone for so long, Blake has found his only solace in the bottle—never missing a show, but also not one to consistently finish them either. The older women he beds each night do nothing to fulfill his need for companionship, discovering that his buddy Wayne, (a nice role from Robert Duvall, a guy seeing a lot of supporting work lately and excelling at it), back home is all he has.

It wouldn’t be much of a story if all we see is some stubborn old musician hell-bent on destroying the little life he has left. So, of course, we find life itself intervening. After playing with a bunch of kids as a backing band, Blake finds himself in Santa Fe with a piano player that actually has some skill. The musicianship alone allows the old-timer to ask Bad for an interview with his niece. Enter Maggie Gyllenhaal and a chance at redemption. She is someone that he can help and, even more, can also help him. Looking into the barrel of the gun that his hard and fast lifestyle has set in front of him, Blake sees a way to be a better person—to be relevant again for once, away from the stage. A single mom of a four year old, Gyllenhaal’s Jean is exactly what he left a quarter century ago. This time he wants so much to stick around and be the father he never was, the lover he neglected to be while on the road, and allow his big heart the chance to give again. The matter of alcohol always looms large, however, and it only becomes a matter of time before something derails the mirage of the high-life he has imagined will last forever. I cringed each time Blake was left alone with young Buddy, knowing in my gut that something was bound to happen eventually.

And this is where Crazy Heart truly excels. It is utterly believable at every turn, from the actors to the story. While the simple fact of having a musical legend boozer at the center of it all makes it clichéd, the plot itself rises above. His relationship with a girl half his age never feels false, as both know what they are getting into. Gyllenhaal is great, keeping her performance nuanced and controlled, continuing her underrated career in character-driven indies and allowing Bridges to show the compassion he has kept bottled inside for so long. She is his rock, no matter how short a time they’ve known each other, but a life of abuse without rehab isn’t something to be undone easily. Sometimes a person can be drunk 24/7 and watch as they get by unscathed, but that one time you stop at a bar and sip half a drink can have devastating effect. Alcoholism lulls you into the false hope of surviving, that is until the bottom finally falls far enough to no longer see the light at the top. Bridges has never been better, portraying that mixture of self-loathing and stubbornness, building the walls to trap him into the destructive world he has. You may think you know how it all ends, except this isn’t Hollywood. Expect an outcome that feels true, leaving room for the happy ending that may or may not come depending on your definition of the term.

But Bridges and the strong tale at hand would be nothing without the amazing work by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham. To be able to believe that this character is a musician of worth, you need to have the music to back it up. The soundtrack put together is top-notch ‘real’ country that wears its emotions on its sleeves. Jeff Bridges pulls off each and every performance—as does Farrell—showing the feeling and pain in his heart. Jean asks Bad where the music comes from and his reply is simply, “from life, unfortunately”. Each chord and lyric tells the story of this man’s past, all the hardships that have led him to the point where we enter. It is only in the discovery of love, the wonderment of being needed and wanted, that his creative juices begin to flow once more, crafting the centerpiece track, and Golden Globe winning tune, “The Weary Kind”. This song needs to be a masterpiece in order to tie the entire film together and make it work. Anything less and we as an audience feel cheated and taken advantage of. To build a story around the power of one piece of music composed in bed on a broken ankle is a tricky endeavor. Thankfully Bingham and Burnett were up to the task, along with everyone else involved pulling their own weight in return.

Crazy Heart 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] L-R: Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian. © Fox Searchlight.
[2] L-R: Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian. © Fox Searchlight.


One Thought to “REVIEW: Crazy Heart [2009]”

  1. Joe Smith

    Just watched it. Very genuine, very believable. Music was really good, story rises above the pain of the man.

    Hitting bottom without killing yourself, finding redemption through the love of music and strength to get over addiction, is what this is all about. I thought Robert Duvall was great, as the supportive and caring friend of Bad. This is the best role I’ve seen Jeff Bridges in, in 4 decades.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.