Yesterday's honky-tonk hero, Bad Blake, arrives at a Clovis, New Mexico, bowling alley. It's another in a string of low-pay, low-turnout gigs with pickup bands half his age, grinding the Greatest Hits out of an old Fender Tremolux, including his breakout — with the chorus, "Funny how falling feels like flying...for a little while." Bad's not flying these days; he's dying slowly on a bourbon diet, holed up in motels watching Spanish-language smut, interrupting his sets to take a puke break.
Actor turned writer-director Scott Cooper adapted Crazy Heart from Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel (the title is a Hank Williams B-side). Cobb wanted Waylon Jennings for Bad Blake; Jeff Bridges finally got the part, though the now-deceased Waylon and Bad's other inspirations hang over it. Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" gets soundtrack play; Bad's shabby-romantic look recalls Kris Kristofferson, his perpetual hangover, "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." The movie never specifies but seems to take place around '87, before cell phones eliminated distance, with the sad orneriness of country music more evident than it is today. It's easy to forget, as Billboard's Country charts fill with faintly twangy pop and lazy paeans to dogs and trucks, that this music has an atavistic darkness. Cobb wrote while Jennings was just detoxing from decades of storied self-abuse and Johnny Paycheck was serving time for a barroom shooting.
Bad has just about bottomed out when a small-time journalist, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), meets him for a rare interview — and sticks around. Crazy Heart follows the slow recovery of atrophied emotional responses that starts when Bad gets involved with Jean and her young son.
Cooper knows exactly when a scene's over, fills his movie's margins with distinct bit players (Beth Grant's middle-aged groupie, Rick Dial's pudgy part-time keyboardist) and is a smart custodian to Bridges' Bad Blake. The part is a vindication of Bridges' unaffected talent and is his best in years (though the bowling alley is a weird opener, playing like a Lebowski gag). He's as good a reactor as actor, so patient and sedentary that his performance's quiet ache sneaks up on you when he's doing nothing more dramatic than settling onto a barstool. Bad recites his age as a refrain — "I'm 57 years old" — and it seems Bridges has lived them all. It's in the habitual gestures, the way he negotiates with a mic stand and passes a drink from his chest to the bedside table with a coil of the wrist — for Bad is usually sprawled and splayed.
The physical effects of Bad's drinking are almost luridly seen, lingering over his dry heaves, the soft, pale torso, his gut spilling out of his often-unbuckled pants. The spiritual attrition feels harsher, as Cooper contrasts huddled, dank interiors with the big sky outdoors, and shows that the saddest thing about being a drunk is the memories that go missing. Jean worries she'll disappear in a blackout, too. Gyllenhaal, usually badly used and badly lit, doesn't make a false move here. Their June-November relationship works because of her lucidity and Bridges' easy-come charm. (An improbably virile career alcoholic, Bad is used to drifting into women and doesn't have to bully.)
Bad's other love — estranged — is Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former sideman, protégé and surrogate son who has eclipsed his old boss' fame, selling out outdoor amphitheaters. You expect a showbiz grotesque, but when they reunite, Sweet is deferential toward Bad, embarrassed by their switched fortunes and maybe what the old man thinks of him and his cheesy-rakish Nashville makeover (he rather daringly wears a pair of dangly earrings). It's a touching performance, though when Farrell carries his furtiveness onto the stage, he just looks twitchy. The duet, a spiritual-conversational tradition in country music, gives them one great, anxious scene. Having hired Bad as an opener, Tommy sneaks onstage to sing with him. He thinks he's supporting the old man; Bad resents having the biggest stage he's seen in a while being stolen and hates himself for resenting the younger man. No one says any of this. It's all implicit in the exchange of glances and epitomizes the movie's double-sided look at the relationship between private feeling and public performance.
In its attention to stage dynamics — Bad's dickering with sound guys, the distinct personalities of his different pickup bands — Crazy Heart shows a rare knowledge and respect for real, played music. Robert Duvall's interest in country music is long-standing — his first directorial outing, We're Not the Jet Set, was named after a George Jones-Tammy Wynette song. He plays Bad's hometown bartender and confessor with casual perfection and is among the producers. Another is T-Bone Burnett, who wrote and arranged the film's songs with Stephen Bruton, a long-time Kristofferson collaborator who died this year. They sound like feasible hits; Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts — and well.
Made with Country Music Television money, Crazy Heart's winding road to Sundance avoided the superficial novelty of the "indie" market. The subject, rehabilitation, is old and resonant. (Says Waylon: "We've been the same way for years/We need to change.") No scene feels obligatory, and Crazy Heart shows a pragmatic but tender understanding of the relationship between physical breakdown and the discovery of morality. It's merely a well-done, adult American movie — that is to say, a rarity.