Crazy Heart, one of my favorite films of 2009, is in theaters.
Bad Blake isn’t striking a pose. His life and his music are all of a piece. To my taste and temperament, most country music sounds cliched, but Bad Blake isn’t so much a cliche as the grizzled, world-weary reality behind the cliches.
Bad isn’t a pampered superstar singing about the hardships and struggles of other people. He’s a faded icon in the shadow of slick Nashville idols like his former protege Tommy Sweet; an aging alcoholic whose world consists largely of a battered old pickup truck that is literally named Bessie, a well-kept guitar that is the one thing he cares for meticulously, and endless miles of dusty roads between one two-bit gig in some bar or bowling alley and another. He keeps a plastic jug in his truck so he doesn’t have to stop, and if he has too much to drink before showtime, there’s the garbage pail in the alley.
Is there more to Bad than alcohol, bitterness and a repertoire of familiar songs? Thankfully, yes. In an utterly transparent performance, Jeff Bridges plays Bad as a man resigned to addiction and circumstances but not defined by them. Remnants of charisma, wit, dignity and showmanship still hold this shell of a man together. He isn’t just going through the motions, not quite, when he gets up onstage. Not only is he more than capable of charming a pretty small-town journalist and single mom during an interview in his hotel room, later on he cooks breakfast for her and her two-year-old son Buddy, even enlisting Buddy as his partner in mischief.
If Bad’s charm doesn’t fully explain Jean’s response to him, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) does have a track record of poor decisions regarding men. It’s part of Crazy Heart‘s quiet power that Jean has a trajectory of her own that is not subordinated to Bad’s character arc. Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), too, is a character following his own story; rather than a shallow, self-absorbed celebrity, he’s unabashedly grateful to his former mentor, whose stubborn pride toward the younger artist pricks the viewer as much for Tommy’s sake as for Bad’s.
A lifelong guitar player, Bridges is thoroughly persuasive strumming and crooning a lineup of catchy country tunes written for the film by T-Bone Burnett, among others. Farrell buries his thick Irish brogue in a convincing Texas drawl, even singing onstage with Bridges.
There’s a widespread idea in addiction and recovery circles that lasting sobriety is a consequence of “hitting rock bottom.” But what is “hitting bottom”? Looking back in sobriety, you might call “rock bottom” whatever low point of abasement and degradation seemed unthinkable until you reached it. But there are always depths below depths, and the final circle you never thought you would sink to could always become one more ring in a downward spiral that can keep going as far as you follow it. The quest for the bottom turns out to be endless.
What is needed is not hitting bottom per se, but a moment of clarity or sudden awareness regarding what is at stake, and a fundamental turning away from self-destruction toward recovery—a decision that will need to be renewed tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. The idea of “hitting bottom” may encourage some to believe that this turning is still possible no matter how far they have sunk—but it can also assuage the consciences of others still seeking the “bottom.”
Crazy Heart‘s turning point becomes a moment of clarity not only for Bad, but for Jean as well. It’s a film that is more hopeful and redemptive than its characters have a right to be, but along with hope is awareness of potentially irrevocable consequences.
Content advisory: Recurring obscene, profane and crass language; a couple of brief nonmarital bedroom scenes (no nudity, but one scene is unnecessarily explicit); heavy drinking, drunkenness, vomiting, etc. Mature viewing.