Play It Loud Enough to Keep the Demons at Bay
2009 // USA // Scott Cooper // February 3, 2010 // Theatrical Print (St. Louis Cinemas Moolah Theater)
B - When you strip Scott Cooper's directorial debut, Crazy Heart, down to its skeleton, there's not much that's original about it from a story standpoint. Stop me if you've heard this one before: a broken-down musician must come to terms with his personal demons before he can rise from the ashes and regain some of his former fame and fortune. Alas, Cooper doesn't bring anything especially cinematic to these deeply rutted roads. Sure, Crazy Heart was filmed on location in the American Southwest, and that lends it an agreeable sun-beaten texture, but Cooper's direction is undistinguished. Based purely on the look of the thing, Crazy Heart could pass for a television movie-of-the-week rather than a limited theatrical release boasting high-profile actors. Fortunately, those actors are all in fine form, especially Jeff Bridges, who portrays the aforementioned broken-down musician, a grizzled country veteran named Bad Blake. The glib cynic in me would like to believe that the movie's genesis lies some anonymous individual's observation, "You know, put the Dude from The Big Lebowski in a cowboy hat and he could pass for the lost brother of Kris Kristofferson..." Blessedly, Bridges' performance amounts to much more than canny casting. He and Cooper turn a familiar story, executed with rote efficiency, into something haunted and ultimately worth watching.
Bad Blake is a going-on-sixty former giant of the outlaw country movement, now reduced to schlepping himself around the desert in an old truck and playing gigs at bowling alleys. Perpetually drunk, creatively stymied, and flat broke, Blake is keenly aware of just how low he's sunk, but seems unwilling to do anything about it. Into his sad life of bourbon and fleabag motels comes Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe music reporter and single mom. He warms to her beauty and interest, she warms to his legend and folksy charm, and into bed they tumble. It's around this time that Blake is strong-armed into opening for his old protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), despite the older man's palpable envy and resentment of Tommy's country superstar status.
Bridges is a cunning choice to play Blake, in part because he's such an affable on-screen presence. Cooper, who adapted the film from a novel by Thomas Cobb, does a marvelous job of using his leading man to fake us out, pressing his case strongly at first that Blake is a pitiable fallen talent and just a kind-hearted crooner at bottom. The story of Crazy Heart—about Blake's romance with Jean and his attempts to re-start his career—isn't especially compelling in and of itself, but it's fascinating for what it reveals about Blake. What Cooper uncovers, gradually at first, and then with heart-breaking swiftness, is that Blake is a stupid, selfish fuckup, and his genius as a songwriter and performer doesn't mitigate that one lick. The drama of what happens in Crazy Heart is less essential than the drama of this dialogue between the viewer and the film-makers. The revelation that Blake is ultimately the antagonist of the tale is a potent one, made all the more affecting because the people in Blake's life—Jean, Tommy, and Houston barkeep Wayne (Robert Duvall)—treat him far kinder than he deserves. To her credit, Jean hustles out of Blake's life as fast as she can once it becomes obvious that he can't or won't change, irrespective of all his professions of devotion and his sweet, easy manner with her son.
Without overstating its case, Crazy Heart eventually stands up and claims its mantle as an Addiction Story, one that ultimately ends in recovery and redemption of a sorts, although not in the tidy fashion that a more wobbly film might have attempted. Despite the film's striving for the authentic grit of country-fried Western life, its message extends to all artistic spheres. Cooper's aim is to annihilate the Hemingway Myth, the idea that an artist—especially a male artist—needs to habitually abuse alcohol or drugs to achieve greatness. Crazy Heart presents a sorrowful and wrenching contravention of this notion, illustrating that addiction turns creative talent into selfishness, negligence, and destruction. The casting of Colin Farrell highlights the film's slyness in presenting this theme. Before we even meet Tommy Sweet, we have been taught to loathe him, because Blake is seething with distrust and antipathy for the man. When Tommy shows up, we think, "Hey, Colin Farrell. Now I know Tommy's going to be a dick." But wait: Tommy is shown to be generous, respectful, and affectionate towards Blake. The latter man's animosity is revealed as the self-absorption and bitterness of an old drunk who screwed up his own career and can't stand to see a younger talent succeed.
As a character study, Crazy Heart is captivating stuff. By maintaining the focus on the audience's perceptions of his lead rather than the narrative, Cooper subtly alters the parameters of a well-worn template and lends the story resonance. As cinema, Crazy Heart is nothing special. It's not inept, certainly, but Cooper makes little effort to put his own spin on the visual language of the film, and cinematographer Barry Markowtiz—who once lent Sling Blade such a sticky, gothic-Southern look—doesn't do much that's memorable here. Pure utility need not be the standard in a low-key, character-driven film such as this, but one gets the sense that Cooper favors the writing process over direction. This is a film-maker who plainly adores actors, and privileges story because of what it can tell us about human behavior. Crazy Heart is just the sort of first feature that one expects from these impulses: fascinating to think about, but never truly exciting to watch. Thankfully, the former is more than enough, especially with the force of Bridges' scruffy humanity behind it.