I watched Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009) Saturday night, and was awed by his performance as a 57-year-old alcoholic “has-been” country singer trying to find a reason to live. Bridges won the best actor award for this role last year, and I was remiss in not seeing this sooner.
Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and is a man who (much like my beloved husband) cannot disguise a core of masculine beauty, despite his best efforts. His character, Bad Blake, somehow manages to shine glimmers of someone uniquely special and attractive, even grizzled, overweight, and covered in his own vomit. To some degree it feels like he is trying to become as unappealing as possible to repel human interest so he can drink and die in peace, yet he is failing miserably. Everywhere he goes, the people he encounters still want his attention and his story. Part of the trouble is that he is encountering fewer and fewer people.
The movie bills itself as about Bad’s ongoing struggle to deal with the success of a young man he once mentored who now is a mega-star out of Nashville playing to crowds of thousands, while Blake is playing bowling alleys. I didn’t see this angle as key. It was mildly interesting but seemed to be only a vehicle to drive dialogue about Bad’s real issues. He abandoned a young son 24 years prior, and hasn’t written a song in decades. He has almost no money, and what he does have he drinks.
Crazy Heart is the second movie I’ve seen in which the male lead is drinking himself to death. The first was Leaving Las Vegas (1995), with Nicolas Cage. Cage’s character Ben utters one of the most poignant statements on alcoholism I’ve ever heard when he says, “I can’t remember if I can’t stop drinking because my wife left me, or if my wife left me because I can’t stop drinking.” In contrast, the line Bad delivers that stuck with me after the movie was his statement to a four-year old boy, “Whole worlds have been tamed by men who ate biscuits.” This was delivered with humor, but was like a laser cutting through all of his dysfunctional garbage. Inside, this character clearly was still a gem who would get out if he could, he had just lost his way and had no idea where the door was anymore.
Both films are Oscar winners, and both use alcoholic disintegration as a lens into human pain and struggle. LLV is a powerful movie, one that successfully explores some very difficult elements of the human condition; but it also presents a man who has no interest in disconnecting his life from alcohol. It is very dark, and very depressing, and Ben’s problems seem so self-absorbed and self-centered it was difficult for me to have true empathy for him. The human condition can surely be dark and depressing, but it can also be much more inspiring, and Crazy Heart shows a man on the edge of losing his options who grabs control of his life back in a very intentional and resurrectional way. Directed by Robert Duvall, Crazy Heart shares some thematic relationships with The Apostle.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t ruin it for you with much more detail. I will say that it does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of honoring characters who make unexpected choices, and of following them through the fallout from those choices to a thoughtful conclusion. If you love character as the real story in film, you will like this movie.