Great songs take root inside your head and fully reveal themselves days later, persistently increasing in power. So it is with Crazy Heart, a straightforward coming of (old) age story, played with a strength of feeling that more than compensates for the familiar nature of the material. It is deceptively affecting; a classic both in form and quality — this year’s The Wrestler. Or a shit-kicker Leaving Las Vegas.
Character actor Scott Cooper makes his debut as director with his second script, adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel. It’s easy — and perhaps correct — to suggest his background explains the focus on performance, the rich characters that propel the story, as slight as it is. But that doesn’t necessarily explain his boldness in adopting such a measured, unhurried pace and freely allowing for the contradictions and confusions of human behaviour. Nor should it prevent recognising the beauty of cinematographer Barry Markowitz’s photography, whether capturing the azure New Mexican sky, or the glint in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s eye. She is excellent, bringing warmth and believability to a character who could have been a cipher in lesser hands: a resilient single mom who falls for Bridges’ musical hero-cum-father figure. The relationship would stretch credulity but for the fact she plays need and desperate hope so well.
She asks Bad where his songs came from: “Life, unfortunately,” is the answer, and pain, passing pleasures and regret fuel the superb music, written largely by T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and the late Stephen Bruton. The film would fail without the soul of the songs — melancholic without being morose and performed with conviction by Bridges, who is perfect as the whisky-wracked Bad, a man for whom drink-driving isn’t so much a crime as a lifestyle choice. Selfish, charismatic, charming but utterly destructive, he’s both lovable and infuriating, driven by the bottle to self-loathing — and self-loathing to the bottle.
There’s been much talk of Bridges’ Oscar chances, having been nominated four times. He’s too good to be a shoo-in — there’s no scenery-chewing scene of actorly self-pity — but he inhabits Bad completely. It’s a wondrous turn, one you must see regardless of who wins. Don’t leave your decision to the Academy’s tender mercies.