What is it that so captivates us in portrayals of down-and-out artists, writers, and performers? Playing a creative type careening out of control tends to bring out the best in an actor—consider Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, Albert Finney in The Dresser, and James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in their respective versions of A Star Is Born.
You can add to this stellar list of losers Jeff Bridges as Otis “Bad” Blake, a blown-out, fifty-seven-year-old Country-Western singer getting by on a few last shreds of charisma and a small following of aging fans. Based on Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel of the same title, Crazy Heart studies a life piled high with indignities. It opens with Bad Blake showing up for a gig at a dingy bowling alley, only to discover there’s no smoking in the lounge and he isn’t allowed to run a bar tab (the manager offers him free bowling instead). Cadging a bottle of whisky from a fan, he shambles through a drunken set of songs, lurches offstage to puke in a garbage can—he has to fish his sunglasses out of the mess—then returns, soaked and filthy, to finish the song to boisterous applause. Such is Blake’s degradation that when he turns himself into a spectacle, his fans either don’t care, don’t notice, or actually enjoy it.
Crazy Heart follows a tried-and-true formula. Saddle a down-and-out singer with a longstanding songwriter’s block, ladle on numberless quarts of McClure’s whiskey, hint at his long-ago desertion of a wife and son, then add a cute single-mom journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with an adorable little boy, and stir in a large hope for redemption: you’ve seen this movie a hundred times. Then again, if you’re looking for startling new forms and insights, you’re probably not listening to songs about your cheatin’ heart in the first place. What Crazy Heart has to offer isn’t originality, but pitch-perfect execution. The film is a finely calibrated study in physical decrepitude, moral turpitude, and godawful grunginess. On the road in his rusted-out ’78 Suburban, too lazy to pull over, Blake pees in a plastic jug, then later dumps it out in the parking lot. Sitting on a motel couch, hacking his way through a take-out steak dinner, he chomps and grunts with the slovenly, open-mouthed gusto of a cowhand at the campfire. His grizzled beard and mane of graying hair lend a shadow of leonine majesty to his look, something regal and debased, and add to the impression of a fallen king, a Country-Western Lear.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, with foot-tappin’ music written by the late songwriter Steven Bruton and the music producer T-Bone Burnett. There’s an enjoyable cameo by Robert Duvall, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s loose-limbed leanness has never been put to such attractive use. The striking capacity of her face for extremes of sadness and joy fits the film’s emotional ups and downs. But the reason for seeing Crazy Heart is Jeff Bridges, who delivers the performance of a lifetime. Bridges has had a curiously off-kilter career. The actor’s understated manner—his relaxed and mellow bearing—has made him easy to mistake for a lightweight; Pauline Kael called him “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.” Caught between casting slots, he has always been too eccentric to be a pure leading man, yet too handsome to be appreciated as a virtuoso character actor à la, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just twenty-one when nominated for an Oscar in his first major role (in The Last Picture Show), Bridges began as a study in boyish good looks tempered by quirkiness. In the underappreciated road movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, with Clint Eastwood, he played a grinning blond preppy with a streak of fey wildness, a laughing readiness for trouble of any kind, that proved extraordinarily engaging (and won him his second Oscar nomination).
Bridges possesses huge range and, with some sixty-four films to his credit, has played just about every kind of character imaginable. A redneck stock-car racer (The Last American Hero); a slacker bowler (in the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski); a cattle rustler (Rancho Deluxe); a cynical and sarcastic talk-radio host (The Fisher King); a psychopathic kidnapper (The Vanishing); a struggling jazz pianist (The Fabulous Baker Boys); a timid Columbia math professor afraid of sex (The Mirror Has Two Faces, opposite Barbra Streisand); an extraterrestrial (in Starman, his third Oscar nomination); and the president of the United States (The Contender, fourth nomination). As he has aged, that callow quality has receded, and he has developed reserves of regret, anger, or desperate, last-ditch passion. Midlife has deepened him.
Crazy Heart is a dream showcase for his kind of naturalistic actor, whose easy way with the smallest mannerisms hides his impressive skill. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screen character smoke with such lavish pleasure and authority as Blake. Ditto for the rituals of drinking. In one scene Blake lies on his back in bed, and decides to place his whiskey tumbler on the bedside table; he does it with a quick twist of the wrist that inverts his hand while keeping the tumbler level, and doesn’t spill a drop. Bridges nails the human stuff as well. Some of the strongest scenes in Crazy Heart treat Blake’s scratchy, resentful collaboration with a former protégé (Colin Farrell) who has become a bigger star, and whose efforts to help resurrect Blake’s career are tinged with condescension. And a sequence in which Blake takes Gyllenhaal’s son to the mall, then loses the boy after ducking into a bar for a drink, evokes the miserable self-loathing that drags an alcoholic toward the absolute nadir. “I want to get sober,” Blake wails in a drunken middle-of-the-night call to his best friend. The next day, he checks into a rehab facility.
It all sounds like material for an AA ad. But the characters are conveyed with such acute and sympathetic detail that their tribulations and turmoil—and Blake’s eventual emergence—seem anything but generic. Director-screenwriter Scott Cooper finds ways to steer Blake’s journey where you don’t expect it to go, culminating not in triumph but rather in something considerably more ambiguous, with a low-key, indeterminate ending seemingly patterned less on the formulae of Hollywood romances than on the cautiously hopeful, one-day-at-a-time model of recovery narratives.
Crazy Heart mixes tragedy with a rueful kind of comedy, one that deals in compounding disasters and offers a detailed anatomy of humiliation. Such stories prove profoundly cathartic; they enact our nightmares and let us out the other side, reminding us what it means to be lost, so that we can understand anew the hope of redemption. As for Jeff Bridges, over his forty-year career he is 0-for-4 in the Academy Awards department; but this year the smart money (and even the dumb money) is betting that his Oscar redemption is also finally at hand.
About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.