I had my own private screening of an Oscar-nominated film this week. Well, it wasn’t planned this way, but I was the only customer Monday night at Sierra Vista Cinemas 16 in Clovis for the late showing of “Crazy Heart.” Such is life in an area where there are 80 screens and almost all of them are showing the same blockbuster fare (five of them tied up with “Avatar”) and somehow have very little room for anything else.
That’s OK. This is a movie that deserves one’s total attention — if not for the story, then for the role of a veteran actor’s lifetime. That this film made it to multiplexland is a surprise; that Bridges may very well walk away with a statuette certainly isn’t. This won’t be a cult-following film, a la “The Big Lebowski,” so chances are Bridges won’t become synonymous with Bad Blake the way he’s become with The Dude, but in a perfect world, he would.
The film’s backstory from start to screen is more interesting than the plot. Veteran bit actor Scott Cooper fell in love with an out-of-print 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb and bought the rights, determined to not only write the script but direct it, his first time behind the camera. He sent the script to Robert Duvall, with whom he had worked in the past, and the screen legend pointed him toward Bridges, as well as veteran musician/producer T-Bone Burnett to create the soundtrack. Bridges turned down the role once before finally deciding to play Bad Blake. Shot in a month in New Mexico on a low budget by Hollywood standards (reportedly $4 million), the film seemed to hit a dead end when its original distributor went out of business. But it was picked up by Fox Searchlight — which struck a gold vein last year when it rescued “Slumdog Millionaire” — and, thanks to Bridges, it stands a strong chance of cashing in on one of its three Oscar nominations. (Maggie Gyllenhaal is up for best supporting actress, while the theme, “The Weary Kind,” written by Burnett and Ryan Bingham, is a finalist for best original song.)
The film’s plot, like its protagonist, is kind of old and a little worn; you’ve seen this before. Bridges’ Blake is a 56-year-old used-to-be country star living very modestly in Houston. His sunburned, weathered face is as hard as his midsection is soft. He hasn’t had a hit album in years, and he’s seen his protege, the good-looking, ponytailed Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), become a big star. He’s been married to four women and thousands of bottles of McClure’s Whiskey — the latter of which is a big part of why he’s near broke.
He drives hundreds of miles to gigs in Ol’ Betsy, his ’78 Suburban, pisses in milk jugs along the way so he doesn’t have to stop, and has pickup bands waiting for him when he staggers into the joint carrying just his guitar and an amp. He’s reduced to playing godforsaken holes, such as the run-down bowling alley in Pueblo, Colo., at the outset. The few fans who show up are hardcore, and he rewards the favor by running off in the midst of a dedication song to puke up his guts out back.
Bad pulls into a small club in Santa Fe, where he befriends Wesley (Rick Dial), the pickup keyboardist. Wesley asks Bad a favor — to grant an interview to his niece, Jean (Gyllenhaal), the music writer for the local paper and a single mother to 4-year-old Buddy. They hit it off, sparks ensue, she finds the big soft spot under his crusty exterior, he falls for her and especially for the kid. He starts to think of the son he left behind at age 2 — the mistakes he’s made in his life, period. Then he gets a big break from Tommy, should he choose to accept it … and, of course, his drinking gets in the way and screws up everything.
Without giving anything away, the plot is quite standard — couple meets cute and complications arise — only with a sun-baked Western flair and an alcoholic country singer. And some of the story’s aspects — such as some points of development and most especially the ending — seem incredibly rushed.
But the acting is the stuff of legend. Bridges, a country fan who played and sang — and damn well — is Bad Blake. You become so immersed in his character that you totally forget he’s fictitious. He seems to have channeled both the disheveled nature of The Dude and the hard-bitten life of Texas singing/songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver. (Duvall, as Bad’s friend Wayne, throws a nod Shaver’s way when he starts singing one of his songs while they’re out fishing on a lake.) You end up silently rooting for him, and cringing and wanting to leave the room (at least I did) when you know he’s about to totally fuck up his best chance at happiness and you have no way of telling him, “Stop! Don’t do it!” And his songs, especially as the film progresses, seem entirely from the heart. “Not one false note” may usually be a cliche, but it’s the absolute truth here — and no pun is intended in the least. Much time and sweat was spent on the music — by Bridges, by Burnett and Bingham, by all the musicians involved. Everything about the performances is real and transcendent.
Gyllenhall is a mixed bag. She has those soulful eyes to kill for, and there’s a genuine, down-to-earth quality about her Jean that meshes well with Bad. She’s believable, but only up to a point; for a struggling mom — who admits to having made several mistakes in her life and is busy juggling a job and a sitter as she raises a little boy alone — she doesn’t seem to have as hard an edge as you’d imagine. However, that owes more to the material than her performance. Farrell turns in a credible performance (and accent, too) as Tommy; his anxieties and self-doubts sit near the surface of a face that, at times, seems to be one huge, furrowed brow. Duvall, no stranger to Texas roles, plays it understated as Wayne, the owner of Bad’s home bar/restaurant and his best pal.
Whatever is lacking in Cooper’s script is compensated for by Cooper’s direction and Barry Markowitz’s cinematography. All the moods are spot-on: the harsh sun that hovers over Bad’s truck as he makes his lonely way from hole to hole; the harsh, garish lighting of the dives in which he plays; the lush warmth of Jean’s house, which serves as Bad’s oasis; the warm glow of the shed arena stages on which Tommy performs. And the loving attention paid to the music translates to the direction, editing (by John Axelrad) and lighting as well. As someone who has seen thousands of shows in dives and arenas alike, I can tell you I felt as if I were there, no matter the venue.
The story of “Crazy Heart” won’t be entirely memorable — but Bridges’ performance absolutely is. He certainly won’t retire after this — even at 60, there should be some roles in his future — but where does he go from here? Like my New Orleans Saints this week (and no, this isn’t a cheap, contrived ploy to get them into another blog posting), where do you go when you’re reached the pinnacle of your craft? When you know you’ve wrapped the performance of your life? Let’s set that aside, think about it down the road and savor it — not like cheap whiskey, but fine wine.