You'd never guess that Crazy Heart is the work of a first-time filmmaker, but it is, and while the story is as old and true as the broken-down country-and-western balladeer at the heart of it, nearly everything about Scott Cooper's debut feels intimate and immediate and as emotionally raw as every country song that ever mattered.
That's due almost entirely to Jeff Bridges' searing and sorrowful turn as the alcohol-basted and nicotine-stained C&W has-been Bad Blake. The performance is magnificent in its road-weariness, and it's a measure of just how truly great an actor Bridges has matured into over the years since he first hit pay dirt in The Last Picture Show almost four decades ago. He's been this brilliant before, but always in exactingly different ways - see The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Big Lebowski and The Fisher King. If the four-time Oscar nominee doesn't get the nod this time, well, life's a bitch and someone should write a bluesy, boozy country song about it.
Luck is one thing Bad Blake hasn't much left of. Paunchy and 57 and looking an awful lot like Kris Kristofferson on a permanent weekend bender, Blake divides his time between playing bowling alley pickup gigs in New Mexico backwaters and keeping himself soused enough to forget both the promise of his past and the downward spiral of his present. His situation changes, possibly for the better, when a semi-sober show in Santa Fe nets him an interview with a local journalist and single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who takes a more-than-professional shine to the old hoss. Then there's the itchy issue of Blake's wounded pride at seeing his onetime protégé, the pseudo-Nashvillian Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, who is unbilled), cresting on the same wave of alt-country popularity that Blake long ago lost in the riptide of cheap hooch and cheaper one-night stands.
The question, then - and it's been answered a million times before, but rarely with such scruffy eloquence - is who is Bad Blake going to love more: the lady or the tequila? Gyllenhaal, to her credit, nearly matches Bridges in intensity here, although why a pretty young journo like her would ever fall for this rotgut country strummer is a mystery that's never fully addressed.
No matter. Backed by a blazingly fine soundtrack courtesy of T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton and a theme song by rising star Ryan Bingham, Bridges makes this desperate ex-desperado as fresh and vital as one final shot at cowboy-poet redemption.