Several points of distinction make Crazy Heart a cut (or three) above the rest of the competition in American film of the past year, and a natural award-magnet in this season of laurels. Director Scott Cooper’s coolly paced but secretly strong saga, a cautionary tale and redemptive road movie armed with salty wit and wisdom, concerns a country singer seemingly at the losing end of a long career. He is an old-school outlaw musician without much of a place in the world of today’s “artificial country,” drinking his way to a potentially early grave and careening from squalid gig to gig with such telling song lyrics as, “I used to be somebody / now, I’m somebody else.” Then love and a late-breaking hit show up to save the day—and his liver.
But for Santa Barbarans, one of the film’s virtues trumps all: This is the moment when a local boy has done good. Real good. As the teetering but dogged artist known as Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges puts in a stunning performance, possibly the high point of his career thus far. We know he has nailed the character from scene one, grousing in the parking lot of a bowling alley in Clovis, New Mexico, emerging from his truck with belt loosened and a jug of urine.
If not for the reasoning voices of a young—and real—love interest, a Santa Fe reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and a bar owner back home in Houston (Robert Duvall), this disabused country legend might die softly. He is resentful of the runaway success of the young and handsome “Today’s Country” star Tommy Sweet (played, half-ironically, by Irishman Colin Farrell), but also reliant on the youngster for an off-ramp from his own impending demise. Meanwhile, the power of song and love are still on his side, as he pens the lines to “The Weary Kind” (cowritten by T-Bone Burnett and burgeoning alt-country star Ryan Bingham, who also puts in a brief appearance as part of the bowling alley pickup band).
In Bridges’s long and layered career, more the stuff of a cult hero than a matinee idol, he has always risen the highest while sinking the lowest. Whether as the wiry Stockton boxer in John Huston’s great Fat City or his classic Dude turn as a paunchy slacker in The Big Lebowski, Bridges embraces the grunge with a calm virtuosity. In that vein, Crazy Heart takes him to new heights and depths, as he seizes the role for all its transgressive and transformative worth.