Robert Duvall has always been one of my favorite actors and filmmakers. I loved him in films like the "Godfather" series, "Apocalypse Now" and "MASH," but it was his role in "Tender Mercies," playing an alcoholic country music singer looking for redemption that won him his Oscar and showed the world that there was a vulnerable side to the macho actor. Duvall went on to be nominated again years later for his mind-blowing performance as a preacher looking for redemption in "The Apostle," a film that he also wrote and directed. Now the actor has stepped out of the limelight with his new film, "Crazy Heart," of which he only produced and had a small supporting role. The film, a subject that Duvall knows well, is a story about an alcoholic country music singer on the road to redemption. Sound familiar? Even though it has obvious similarities to Duvall's "Tender Mercies" the film is absolutely original, moving and is one of the best films that I've seen all year. First time writer/director Scott Cooper really knocked it out of the park with this touching film about a likable man, a fallen star, trying to put the pieces of his life back together.
This time however, veteran actor Jeff Bridges, who is also one of my favorite actors, steps into the role of the fallen singer, Bad Blake. Bridges is the perfect casting for this role and by far, in a career of great performances, gives his best. We are introduced to Blake as an alcoholic, womanizer, who once was a famous country music singer but is now reduced to traveling town to town in his beat-up car playing dive bars along the way. His former protégé, Tommy Sweet played surprising well by Colin Farrell is now a big country star in his own right and asks his former mentor to write him some songs. Uninterested in Tommy's offer Blake goes back to his life on the road where he meets Jean Craddock played with elegance and grace by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jean is a single Mother of a young boy and a local newspaper reporter in New Mexico who is doing a story on Blake. Against Jean's better judgment she falls for Blake and they begin a relationship that only ends in tragedy and disappointment. Tired of his failing health and life, Blake returns home, off the road and seeks advice from his friend and fishing buddy Wayne (Duvall). After unsuccessfully trying to reconnect with the son he deserted over twenty-years ago and loosing Jean, Wayne suggests that Bad enter rehab. After successfully doing that, Blake swallows his pride and begins writing some of the best songs of his life, based on his resent experiences and sells them to Tommy as he goes on the road with him as his opening act. Now with his life back together and on the right track, he has one last encounter with Jean that gives them closure to the love they once had.
Bridges, who is known to an entire generation as the Dude from the Coen Brothers' film, "The Big Lebowski," and Bridges is not un-Dude-like in this role, playing Blake with a certain fogged-out charm that he mastered in the Coen Brothers' classic. But Blake is a much darker and serious role and Bridges hits the tone perfectly, playing this aging, once-celebrity with just the perfect blend of bitterness and sarcasm. His ability to sing and play guitar is also quite astonishing and the actor deserves credit for that. We saw him sing in the film "The Fabulous Baker Boys" but this is a very different type of music and Bridges portrays it with all the confidence of a professional musician who's been on the road for half his life. Bridges also has the quality of being very likable, which goes along way in making this otherwise unlikable character so appealing. Bridges, who is one of our finest actors but always seems to go under the radar, should really get his long over-due well deserves this awards season as this is a power-house performance and the kind that usually garners Oscar attention. It's hard to believe that the talented actor has been nominated four previous times and never won, I truly believe that this film, this role and this year belongs to Jeff Bridges. It is that good of a performance.
The movie to me, in a lot of ways was not unlike last year's "The Wrestler" by director Darren Aronofsky and starring Mickey Rourke. In fact, the film could just have easily been called "The Country Music Singer" but that in no way takes away from the value of this film. Both are great films actually, I just think there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both characters are fallen stars of their given professions, both deal with addiction and a child that wants nothing to do with them, both entering new relationships and both trying to desperately hold on to what they once had. The difference is Rourke's Ram, unlike Bridges' Bad, never tried to change. Bad Blake does. Randy "The Ram" chose one more shot at greatness as apposed to choosing life, which is what Bad chooses in the end, to live. By changing and sobering up he decides to embrace life, rather then excepting where he is, Blake decides to strive for something better and that is a great message. The performance can be compared to Rourke's as well as I believe that this will be the break-out performance this year that everyone is talking about. But unlike last year, where Rourke's nomination was a reward for his own noble comeback, I think this year Bridges' nomination and hopefully his win will not only be reward for a brilliant performance but long overdue reward for an amazing career.
While Bridges obviously carries the film with his amazing performance all the other players are great as well. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is one of my favorite young actresses, is cute, charming and gloriously deep as always, bringing a graceful depth of humanity well beyond her years to this role. Gylenhaal, who is a Mother herself, brings believability to the role of this small southern town, single Mom and is at her best in a devastating scene in the film, which is every Mother's nightmare. Gyllenhaal, who has never been nominated for an Oscar deserves her first this year. Beyond her lively performance in this film, the actress has been doing some great work over the last decade and deserves all the attention she will get for this film. An actor who may not get a lot of attention for this film but should is Colin Farrell. The actor, who I think was written off prematurely as a tabloid actor has been doing some fine work as of late and is absolutely great in this film. He is only in a few scenes but is completely believable as the young country music star and very impressive playing guitar and singing in the concert scenes. One problem I've always had with Farrell is it doesn't seem like he can ever shake his Irish accent and in a film where he is playing a country music star, I have to admit I was worried but he really pulls it off only slightly falling into the Irish brogue once or twice. It is a small but very strong performance that could have easily been a weak point in the film but was not. Farrell's admiration for Bridges as an actor is also evident and that plays perfectly into his character's relationship to Blake.
Finally, what can be said about the great Robert Duvall that hasn't been said already? He adds an authenticity to the film, and the scenes that he is in with Bridges, that you couldn't get from another actor. His gravitas is immeasurable. He is a pleasant addition to all of his scenes and his charm and intelligence is still in full. He has the ability to make you choke up with just one thought or gesture and is particularly good in a scene where he is fishing with Bridges character and trying to give him some good life lessons. But first-time director Scott Cooper deserves all the credit. The script, which was based on the book by Thomas Cobb, was top-notch and worthy of a best-adapted screenplay nomination as well. The direction is wonderful and paints an upbeat picture of this man's redemption. Cooper shows true potential with this film and his wide scoping shots of this country's southwest are just as gracefully shot as the quiet intimate scenes in the film. What I liked about the film is that unlike the ending of "The Wrestler," which was vague and depressing, this film ends very positively and gives you a real feeling of where Blake's new life may take him. The music by Stephen Bruton and musical legend T-Bone Burrnett, again lends a musical authenticity to this film that it absolutely needed to work as well as it did. "Crazy Heart" is one of the best-acted, best-written, independent films that I've seen in a long time and a real treat to watch. If there is one film that you should see this awards season that is sure to be talked about, it's "Crazy Heart," the film, and especially it's performances, will remind you why you love to go to the movies. Jeff Bridges gives one of the best male performances anyone has given on film in years and should not be missed. It's truly an amazing thing to behold and he deserves all the accolades that he will be receiving over the next few months.