‘Crazy Heart’ falls squarely into the latter bunch. Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a one-time Nashville big hitter reduced to touring Midwestern dives picking up loose change and loose women, his livelihood in even worse shape than his liver. That is, until two events conspire to turn his sinking ship around: a relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean promises the kind of unflinching affection and familial grounding Blake badly needs, and a gig writing songs for one-time protégé-turned-megastar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) provides a much-needed jolt for his career.
In purely story terms this is by-the-numbers stuff, ticking all the expected boxes about redemption and renewal. But writer-director Scott Cooper’s trick is to turn that predictability into a strength: like a song you’ve heard a thousand times but which never fails to tug the heartstrings, ‘Crazy Heart’ feels familiar, even comforting, offering few surprises but a wealth of lovingly crafted, immaculately judged, wholly authentic emotion.
The emotion is there in the soundtrack put together by Cooper and producing legend T-Bone Burnett, with new songs by Burnett and Ryan Bingham sitting perfectly alongside obvious inspirations like Townes van Zandt and Waylon Jennings. It’s also in Cooper’s solid direction: despite his inexperience, he never falls prey to flashy first-time director syndrome, confident that his screenplay and cast will carry him through.
And it’s in those remarkable central performances: Bridges has already earned an Oscar nomination, but it’s impossible to overstate how much his honest, unabashed performance – part The Dude, part Kris Kristofferson – grounds the film. He’s backed by a sympathetic Gyllenhaal, making magic from a potentially thankless role, and a convincing turn from Farrell as the preening bigshot in cowboy clothes. But best of all is Robert Duvall, who essentially defined the subgenre with ‘Tender Mercies’ back in 1983, and whose quiet, deeply felt turn as a bar owner reminds us of his undimmed but underused talent.
A shame, then, that the movie falls at the final hurdle with a series of crude, convenient feelgood twists, leading to an abrupt, unconvincing finale. If Cooper and his cast hadn’t done their work so well, hadn’t made us care so deeply for these fractured souls, maybe it wouldn’t matter. As it is, ‘Crazy Heart’ is only two-thirds a great movie: but like the song says, that ain’t bad.