Critical appraisal for Crazy Heart has been largely unified, with most citing Jeff Bridges’ central performance as the strongest aspect of the film. Whilst this review will not deviate significantly from that sentiment – director Scott Cooper has a background in character acting, and the focus here is resolutely on Bridges – it is too much to say that Crazy Heart is carried by him. It is more that the film leans on him whenever it appears to be losing momentum.
As Bad Blake, an ageing but still popular country and western star, Bridges is more than worthy of his Oscar nod. As we discover from a lyric in the first of many original songs (“All my life I’ve been a rolling stone”) Blake is not willing to let his destructive lifestyle dwindle in the face of something so un-rock and roll as growing up. Oddly, though Blake is 57, the film still feels like a coming of age story, and this is intended as a compliment. For all his charisma and rugged charm, Blake is still a flawed character and his journey, derivative though it may be, is told with enough panache and heart that it’s easy to see past the familiarities.
The film begins in rather underwhelming fashion, but having seen the film to its conclusion it’s easier to appreciate the importance of the imagery in the opening scene: Blake, alone in his old car, cowboy hat perched upon his head, cruising along to the sounds of his own music. It is credit to the film’s writing that things quickly pick up, Blake’s story coming across in vivid colours (framed beautifully by Barry Markowitz’s cinematography), and walking a path that is ultimately redemptive. The ending may confound some viewers but it isn’t a cop out; it sticks with the convictions of the previous acts and it feels unexpectedly satisfying.
But this film is as much about the music itself as it is about its fictional singer. The film’s score is peppered with original tracks composed primarily by T Bone Burnett (with other collaborators) and is performed with authority and convincing musicianship by Bridges and, in a small but effective cameo, Colin Farrell. Their scene together playing a gig in front of 12,000 screaming fans is a simple joy, and one of the film’s strongest moments. The film has previously hinted at a fractious relationship between the two characters but their on-stage chemistry, and the wave of applause washing over Bridges’ bearded face, is uplifting to see. It’s also the moment in which one of the film’s best lyrical moments comes across most strongly: Bridges and Farrell sharing the microphone to sing ‘Funny how falling feels like flying, for a little while’ sums up Blake’s character arc in an instant.
Blake and his music are almost the same character. His wearied assertion that his songs come from ‘life, unfortunately’ is somehow heart-warming and lends a greater weight to the tracks themselves, which will be enjoyed by almost everyone, country fans or not. Blake’s redemptive song ‘The Weary Kind’ has been Oscar nominated for best original song and whilst the film deserves recognition of the effort that has gone into this soundtrack, it would’ve been more fitting if the film had been up for best original score as well.
Elsewhere, Maggie Gyllenhaal provides surprisingly effective support as Jean Craddock, a young single mother drawn into Blake’s web of charm and father-figure authority. It’s surprising not because of the actress’ performance – we know she can act – but more that her character is basically a foil for Blake and often roles such as this can feel tacked on. The film has been compared to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it does bear some key similarities – not least of which in the strength of the lead performers and their female supports – but Crazy Heart, in spite of its influences, is its own film. It isn’t perfect and it isn’t wholly original in terms of narrative, but the film has a warm heart and a depth of performance that makes it deserving of recommendation.