Characteristically, Jeff Bridges captivates the audience with his portrayal of Bad Blake, a hard-drinking, serial marrying, downward-spiraling country singer who has gone from headliner to saloon-crooner. The film’s redemption theme is not unique—it’s really kind of a rehashing of 2008’s The Wrestler — so Crazy Heart offers nothing new to the category of “man must save his life or die by the way he lives” formula; however, Bridges often overshadows the clichéd story with a performance that shies away from the oft-hyperbolic portrayals of alcoholics and drug abusers — see Leaving Las Vegas, which will be discussed in an upcoming post, titled Nic Cage: My Uncle is Francis Ford Coppola.
In a refreshing performance, Bridges plays Blake as a cognizant, functioning alcoholic, not as one who stumbles from bar to bar, starting fights and slurring consistently before breaking down in tears. There is really only one scene where alcohol visibly gets the best of Blake, but it’s only momentary, requiring him to leave the stage in a dumpy bar to vomit before continuing.
Similarly, Crazy Heart doesn’t force an uber-tragic moment of clarity on us. While we feel for Blake, his rock-bottom transpires from coincidence and a child’s curious nature, not a drunken hallucination that results in someone’s death or injury. Instead, Blake obviates the trust that Jean Craddick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bestows on him, which makes Blake’s fall internal, and refreshingly, it doesn’t feel forced.
Perhaps this is because Gyllenhaal portrays Jean as strong-willed yet whimsical, aware that Blake is on the verge of tumbling off a cliff, but enamored by the talented poet underneath. And while Gyllenhaal gives a rather underrated performance in Crazy Heart, this relationship is the major element of the film that I have a problem grasping. The acting is genuine, but the story is weak. She’s a journalist for a small-town newspaper, and Blake is her temporal subject. Somehow, they fall in love, but it’s never clear why. Yes, she loves his music, but we find that out well after they begin their affair, so what’s the impetus? There are only so many times that movies can employ the “love is a mystery” scapegoat.
Of course we know a fall is coming, but when it does, Crazy Heart does not compile a montage that conveys the trials and tribulations of rehab — the clinical scene lasts about forty-five seconds and merely shows Blake standing up in front of a group, admitting that he’s an alcoholic.
In the end, there is no neat little bow. Often, there is one of two directions taken in redemption films: relapse, which leads to death and suggests that humans are destined to fail, or victory, which insists that humans can erase their flaws. This film really depicts neither. He doesn’t fall at the end, but he doesn’t win either. He knows temptation lies within reach, and he acknowledges his limitations while taking responsibility for letting most everything slip out of his grasp.
He’s not a hero, and he’s not a villain. He’s human.
DYL MAG Score: 7