Monday, February 1, 2010
Real country music (not that silly, poppy, beer for my horses kind of stuff) is a contradiction if you think about it. It is one of the simplest, saddest forms of music there has ever been and yet, in execution, it can be both upbeat and catchy. That’s essentially the driving truth behind Crazy Heart, which is not quite a tragedy but not quite a happily ever after story either. When washed up, alcoholic country legend Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is asked by a reporter where all those songs came from his answer comes with only half a grin: “Unfortunately, they came from life.” It’s no surprise then that the chorus to Blake’s biggest hit Fallin’ and Flyin’ ponders: “Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while.” If anyone should know… The contradiction of country music is thus also the contradiction of Bad Blake as well. He’s washed up, finishes a cigarette with another, is a thankless alcoholic, hasn’t written a new song in years and drives himself to bowling alley gigs in his old beater only to spend much of the time backstage with his head in the toilet bowl, while his young protégée Tommy Sweet is selling out stadiums on the back of his solo work. There’s a point it seems, in the career of any legendary musician, in which music stops being one’s job and starts being their biggest inconvenience; a mandatory disruption between binges. That’s the stage Blake has gotten himself into. And yet, on stage, singing those depressing songs, is when Blake is most truly alive and his performance glistens with power and energy. It’s a chore to get to the stage, but once there Blake is encapsulated by the power of his own songs. It’s at these times that one realizes that Blake isn’t a ghost of a former time, but simply a wanderer, damned to haunt the purgatories of Santa Fe as a man bearing the burden of his former excesses. And then things seem to look up as Blake staggers from one meaningless episode to the next. His first big break in life is the relationship that forms between him and the reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who comes for an interview and leaves with his heart. She’s a little broken herself, raising a child from a marriage that was a mistake, and sees something in him. Maybe it’s in the songs. She knows the risks, but takes the plunge anyway; thinking maybe saving Blake could atone for her own past mistakes even while knowing better than that at the same time. What Blake finds in return, through her son Buddy, is what he himself has lost with his own estranged son that he has not seen since the boy was four. Their relationship is a complex one because it grows under the knowledge that, no matter how much she loves him, no matter how good he is with the kid, at the end of the day Blake is still an addict and all an addict truly cares about is how to get their next fix. This leads to a key scene in a shopping mall in which Blake hits rock bottom and the film pulls the rug out from under us as a reminder that this isn’t just some conventional redemption story. Blake is a flawed man and, despite how much our hearts go out to him and how often we see that he is capable of good, he is not infallible and relapse is part of his nature. At times like these, the film subtly reveals that it knows a lot about addiction without ever really being about it. That’s essentially the approach the entire film takes, revealing itself subtly, never passing judgement on its characters or forcing them down paths they needn’t go. It’s not so much concerned with following a conventional story as it is in showing how life is random and episodic and, despite our best efforts to the contrary, can turn on us at any moment. Blake is neither a hero nor a villain; he’s just another guy playing the cards he has been dealt. Sometimes he wins a hand. Most times he doesn’t. There’s not a lot to say about Jeff Bridges that hasn’t already been said. He is, indeed, one of America’s most gifted and consistent actors. The entire film rests squarely on his ability to make an audience sympathize with Blake while never quite making them feel sorry for him. There are also small but significant moments for Collin Farrell as Tommy Sweet and Robert DuVall as Blake’s old friend. The film is wise to not develop these characters into subplots that could build into a story, not simply for the fact that it prevents them from succumbing to all the dramatic clichés this kind of story is prone to but, like everyone else in Blake’s life, it makes them feel just like what they are: random faces along the path to nowhere in particular.