Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a broken-down, hard-living country music singer who's had way too many marriages, far too many years on the road and one too many drinks way too many times. And yet, Bad can’t help but reach for salvation with the help of Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who discovers the real man behind the musician.

A mature and superbly crafted drama.

Often it takes a while for an exceptional acting performance to creep up on us, but the greatness of Jeff Bridges' lead performance as a washed-up country singer in Crazy Heart announces itself from the opening scene. A grizzled-looking, bearded older man gets out of his truck, bad-temperedly empties a urine bottle onto the ground and then hobbles towards the humble mid-Western bowling alley where his next gig is due to take place.

He’s hardly spoken a word and already there’s a vivid sense of a complex, real-life character we look forward to getting to know. That character is Bad Blake, a well-respected performer whose career peak has long ago passed. Now he exists on small-time gigs with pick-up bands, and gets drunk and neglects his health whenever he gets a spare moment, which is just about every second.

The film centres on Blake’s relationship with a newspaper journalist who comes to interview him. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jean Craddock is a single-parent who wants to talk to him out of fandom rather than because her editors are likely to give a damn. When the mid-50s Blake asks her out she initially resists but he’s insistent. Their subsequent affair is both passionate and tender but he resists her attempts at opening up about his past and their age difference starts to seem the least of their issues.

Any movie romance between a semi-derelict man in his mid-50s and an attractive younger woman is open to accusations of stereotypical masculine wish fulfillment, but the film constructs its two lead characters with sufficient care to make their behaviour seem natural.

The third dramatic element is Blake’s former protégé, Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell. Since splitting acrimoniously from Blake’s old band, Sweet has become a major star and is fond enough of the man to give him a leg-up onto a major concert bill. Blake is proud enough to be embarrassed by the gesture and only accepts after being pressured by his long-time agent.

Bridges' achievement is to make the viewer care deeply about a guy who’s his own worst enemy. Partly it’s because of Blake's talent and the easy-come charisma and likeability that Bridges carries in his actor’s kitbag, but it’s also because Blake, for all his flaws, so obviously means well. The film lets you sense the pain in his heart without hitting the sentimentality button.

It’s hard to believe Crazy Heart's writer and director, Scott Cooper, is a newcomer. This is more than just a vehicle for Bridges to win awards – the role has already garnered the actor a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination – but a mature and superbly crafted drama right down to the smallest detail.

While expressing their admiration, some critics have worried about what they felt were the film’s clichés. I think they’ve confused two different things. Clichés are by definition trite. If Blake seems a little familiar at times, it’s because he fits an archetype. The country singers played by Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies and Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man were older variations (Duvall appears here in a cameo role and takes a producer credit), and Mickey Rourke’s bloodied canvas battler in The Wrestler a more recent, sporting one. This is a character type that resonates on the mythic level.

Unlike Robert Altman’s Nashville, which satirised country music mercilessly (or at least its more commercial variant), Cooper clearly loves and understands the form and the milieu it thrives in. Whether performed in smoky bars or sprawling outdoor concerts, the music is presented at its best – soulful and melodic, with lyrics that tolerate no nonsense.

Bridges and Farrell sing their own songs and their voices are considerably better than merely acceptable. T-Bone Burnett (who oversaw the hit soundtrack of O Brother Where art Thou?), shares songwriting credits with Stephen Bruton, who died shortly after the film was completed. Burnett also takes a producer credit on the film. The on-screen musicians are all top-drawer, including guitarist Buddy Miller, and the soundtrack includes the likes of Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Buck Owens. If you’re going to make a movie set in a specific musical sub-culture, you’d better get its details right. Crazy Heart does that and more.


Watch 'Crazy Heart'

Saturday 2 May, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies

USA, 2009
Genre: Drama, Music
Language: English
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall
What's it about?
Bad Blake (Bridges, in an Oscar-winning performance) is a broken-down, hard-living country music singer who's had way too many marriages, far too many years on the road and one too many drinks way too many times. And yet, Bad can’t help but reach for salvation with the help of Jean (Gyllenhaal), a journalist who discovers the real man behind the musician.

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1 hour 51 min
In Cinemas 18 February 2010,
Wed, 07/21/2010 - 11