Directed by Scott Cooper
From the opening shots of a beat up truck passing along empty highways against stunning Southwestern desert backdrops, it's plainly clear that Crazy Heart is tapping into a very specific and familiar set of American myths. Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), our fictional country-bluesman and boozehound, is that archetypal frontiersman found wandering everywhere from early settler narratives up through Westerns, road movies and into a great deal of sci-fi. This solitary traveler is an explorer but also a man who lives by his habits: he always keeps on the move as much for his love of the road as for his fear of what might happen if he stopped moving. When we meet Blake his road routine seems to be the only thing keeping him from dissolving into a puddle of whiskey and seeping deep into the appendix of country music history.
A 57-year old who looks about a decade older, Blake plays dive bars and bowling alleys alongside eager back-up musicians half his age, often as he teeters at the edge of total drunken embarrassment. He wakes up the next day, sneaks out on whoever happens to have ended up in his shabby motel room's bed, and drives several hundred miles to his next gig like he's a latter-day Atlas and this is the cycle he's fated to repeat for eternity. Bridges inhabits the role so completely—as if he'd carved extra lines into his face to convey the notion of being physically and psychologically haggard—that you almost worry for the actor's well being: Did he have to go to rehab too?
Indeed, this being a road movie about a substance-abusing musician from the producer who brought you Walk the Line, there's never any doubt that a woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will come along and lead Blake out of his death march. To be fair, she has some assistance from Blake's barkeep best bud Wayne (Robert Duvall) and former protégé turned country sensation Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). These supporting players fare admirably, well cast in their respective roles, but it's Gyllenhaal's divorced journalist and single mom, and the predictable but no less exciting chemistry that she and Bridges share that makes this redemption story (another typically American narrative) stand out from its many, many predecessors. And Bad Blake's excellent repertoire of country-blues songs, which were written especially for the film by Stephen Bruton and co-producer T Bone Burnett.
Basically, though, we know how this story will end before we even enter the theater; the pleasure is in the execution. First-time director Scott Cooper, who also adapted Thomas Cobb's eponymous novel, has crafted an excellent take on American mythos that gives the actors the room they need to reactivate the story, while subtly enhancing their performances. Notice how Blake's Houston home alternately looks like a pretty house with elegant furniture and rich detailing, or a dank, repulsive dungeon. Or that the cinematography and editing, like Blake, seem more at ease out in the open or onstage, favoring longer takes and slow-moving long shots outdoors and during rousing performance sequences, and tight, almost suffocating angles and jarring editing for interior scenes. With such capable accompaniment, the two particularly great performances in Crazy Heart look and sound that much better.
Opens December 16