Allow me to be one more voice joining the chorus of people lauding Jeff Bridges' performance in Crazy Heart as easily the best of 2009, and one of the best in a long and brilliant career. As washed up country singer Bad Blake, Bridges owns the screen in a way few actors are capable of, making you forget entirely that you're watching someone you've observed in countless other films, and letting you buy in completely to this character and this story.
Bad Blake is certainly bad, albeit primarily to himself. Once a success on the country music stage, Blake has hit the skids in grand movie musician fashion, reduced to playing bowling alleys and cramped bars to scarce and aged crowds of the remaining faithful. His long-suffering manager keeps him on the road in the hopes that something better will eventually come along, and that maybe he'll get around to writing another hit record. Blake seems more interested in just being able to maintain his severe drinking habit.
After a gig in Santa Fe, he meets up with a young reporter named Jean, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She's an admirer of both the music and the man, and after a bit of traipsing around the subject, the two begin to fall for one another. Implausible as it sounds, this pairing doesn't come across as manufactured or forced. When Blake steers aside Jean's questions with the quip, "I just wanna talk about how bad you make this room look," you get a crystal clear view of what might make this drunken lout so charming, despite the sheer incandescence of his failings. Blake sees in Jean something beyond the scope of the odd, ancient groupie that typically finds her way into his motel room. She's a divorcee, a single mom, smart, cultured--seemingly too smart and cultured for him. In her inexplicable interest, he sees a capacity to change himself, to make himself into something deserving of her affection.
This plot description might sound terribly formulaic up to this point, and Crazy Heart is certainly a formula picture. The bumps and scrapes along the way toward Blake's redemption hit a number of familiar notes. You can call it The Wrestler meets Waylon Jennings, if you like. However, the number of scenes that truly qualify as truly cliched can be counted on one hand.
Credit where credit's due to first time writer/director Scott Cooper for avoiding any truly eye-roll worthy moments. Nearly every time the movie starts to tread down a beaten genre path, it veers away from the expected outcome. Bad Blake may be a raging alcoholic, but he never misses a show, and gives great performances throughout the picture (occasional barf breaks aside). Blake's relationship with his former protege turned country superstar Tommy Sweet (played with an appropriate level of inauthenticity by Colin Farrell) seems like ripe fodder for an antagonistic subplot, but in truth Tommy still has a great deal of adoration for his mentor, and does his best to do right by him. Things start to get a bit hokey when Blake has a drunken escapade babysitting Jean's son and eventually finds himself in rehab, but up to that point, it'd be hard to pick out a single wrong note in the script, and it doesn't take long for the ship to steer itself right again.
The most credit is of course due to Bridges' unbelievable performance. He takes this solid material and turns it sublime. He's said publicly that his craft is anything but effortless, but his ability to hide that effort is what makes him such a special actor. There's nothing overly mannered or precise about what he does, he simply exudes the tragedy and humor of Bad Blake in a way that feels like it's been truly lived. Gyllenhaal is in good form too. She's not overly convincing as a born-and-raised southwestern gal, but she makes Jean's relationship with Blake believable. Robert Duvall's turn as Blake's bartender best friend is as perfect as it is brief. I think I could have sat through 90 minutes of watching Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall fish together. Their interactions are just uncanny.
I also have to make mention of the exceptional music. T-Bone Burnett (who composed and produced tracls on the much-lauded O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack) and Steven Bruton composed all the original tunes, and Jeff Bridges (a guitar player of 40-some odd years) performed on every track. His performance extends seamlessly into the music, giving the tracks the exact kind of road-worn feel needed to avoid sounding like, well, songs for a movie.
While it's easy to perceive Crazy Heart as a one-performance movie, it's far more than that. Certainly Bridges' extraordinary performance is reason enough to see it all on its own, but the supporting elements around that performance more than hold their own here, and come together into something well beyond the scope of what we've become accustomed to from this kind of film.