Film: Scott Cooper: Crazy Heart (2009)

Jeff Bridges, the screen presence, has always seemed on the cusp of either busting into a healthy gut laugh or dissolving in a fit of wrenched-soul despair.  The thin line he rides can make him at times immeasurably fun to behold – a poised, vaguely effete shaggy dog of a comedian – or incredibly hard to watch, his frail emotions roiling just behind his tiny eyes.  He’s got his tricks down, as any actor with a 30-year career behind him will, but in the best of roles he manages to troll beyond them for something fresh and clear, something uncannily human beyond the written lines and the essentially silly demands of narrative screen craft.  He’s as helplessly subject as anyone to the quirks of his director and editor, but at a certain level – like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Pacino in his youth – he seems fundamentally unable to lie with his behavior and delivery, even if the material he’s working with doesn’t always offer truth on its own.

He’s one of very few actors – perhaps the only one – for whom I would see a film purely for a performance.  And most of his films are, as films, quite messy.  Peter Weir has his moments in Fearless (1993), particularly with the odd catharsis he delivers with the horrifying plane crash, but Bridges’ liquid presence, mired in willful oblivion and childlike sensual engagement, preserves the core of sublime human frailty that Raphael Iglesias’ script just about overlooks.  Terry Gilliam never quite knows where to put his camera, but Bridges roots his performance in The Fisher King (1991) in something ineffably real (and which, as played opposite Robin Williams, might not even be the right note for the film).  Even Joel and Ethan, floundering for a purpose in The Big Lebowski (1998) (sorry, everybody), can’t make Bridges anything less than utterly, absorbingly pleasurable to watch, a hippie lizard sunning himself in the funky eclipse of the Coens’ whimsy.

It should come as no surprise of any kind that Bridges’ Crazy Heart director, Scott Cooper, is an actor.  He pays an actor’s attention to molding his characters in mood-conscious time and space, and he’s done well to fill his crew with craftsmen weaned on actor-directed films: Billy Bob Thornton’s cinematographer, Barry Markowitz, and casting director Mary Vernieu; Ed Harris’ Appaloosa production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and construction coordinator Ben Zeller.  But Cooper also brings a lovely spatial awareness to Crazy Heart and a soft editing touch that spares his performers from having to carry too much weight for him; he frequently lets his camera drift into his scenes from the periphery, and cuts gently through them without visual impatience.  Bridges is free to play alcoholic, late-career country singer-songwriter Bad Blake as a man rather than as a narrative construct; Cooper does his job as director to build the film out of subtle, uncompromised blocks of articulate behavior.

The result is what Tender Mercies probably tried to be in 1983: a subdued character piece of remarkable progressive dimension, buoyed by a powerhouse of a central performance and superb supporting parts (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell do not disappoint).  But Robert Duvall (who’s executive producer of Crazy Heart, and plays a small part), an actor of great tact under the guidance of a Coppola or a Lumet, does not radiate the same unerring gravitas from one role to the next, and Mercies director Bruce Beresford is not a born filmmaker (nor is Cooper) or a gifted director of actors (Cooper is); there are layers to Duvall’s Mac Sledge that slip away from the film, unrealized, from lack of graceful craftsmanship.  It’s a tall order, to let performances carry a film.  The danger is that it’ll lose a sense of its own trajectory, lost in the muffling nooks and folds of character; a whole film may not emerge.  In the best case scenarios – The Godfathers, Last Tango, There Will Be Blood – enormously confident filmmakers allowed their films the possibility of being upended by overwhelming performances, all the while reigning them in under one cohesive cinematic net.  No scale of performance need ever expand beyond the boundaries of a film; no core performance need ever be scaled down to fit in a film, either.

Bridges has been around the block a few times, and I imagine he’s got a fine-tuned sense of his own presence.  His mannerisms sometimes show a bit more than they should in Crazy Heart – he has a way of extracting a cigarette from his mouth that seems plucked from some other, groovier, part – and it’s possible that Cooper wanted a little more Jeff Bridges in Bad Blake than the character necessarily required, but this is the kind of criticism one raises when one (me) doesn’t have anything more to criticize.  The music performances in Crazy Heart are frequent and lengthy, and illustrate the quality of old-time country music that, like classic rock, cracks open the showy foolishness of its modern pop descendants.  The songs Bridges performs – himself, rather well – are straightforward but reserved, sung inwardly with generous warmth that wends its way into the audience as on a light breeze – the audience in the film, and to us as well.  They are wonderfully understated songs, about being a man, about being an aging man; there’s a tricky little scene in which Gyllenhaal chastises Blake not for effortlessly picking out a gorgeous ditty on his guitar, on the fly, but for doing it on her bed, providing her with an association Blake the traveling performer will probably forget.  The song itself isn’t half the point.  Its position in time and place to the player and listener means a lot more, as song and memory leapfrog past each other.

There’s the sudden feeling, watching scenes like this, that Bridges the actor has earned his way to a role like this, with a lifetime of accumulated facets that add up to memories for us.  It isn’t the same as Mickey Rourke playing Randy Robinson in The Wrestler (2008), where Rourke’s own failures seemed as much a part of the performance as his acting.  Bridges was never self-destructive; he’s routinely the best part of his films.  And presumably, Bad Blake was once the best part of his own act: a brilliant songwriter, a magnificent performer, and a mentor to the younger country singer-songwriters who would skyrocket to fame far surpassing his own.  Bridges is not a marquee superstar, but he commands the kind of attention and respect reserved for the quiet lifers: the Tom Waitses, the Paul Schraders, the ones you can be sure have a vast reservoir of experience to draw from, and a lot more to say than they may care to spell out.

The film’s closing scenes remind us just how bound an actor is to forces outside himself.  The film as a dramatic vehicle ends a good twenty minutes before the credits roll, and we’re compelled to watch Blake rehabilitate.  Bridges does all he can with these scenes, and Cooper means them earnestly, and all things considered, Crazy Heart might very well be Bridges’ best film, but there’s a scene in a shopping mall security that takes Blake to the very end of the line.  A cut to a later, intimate concert – Blake calmer, quieter, an even older man – might have bypassed the de facto syrup ladled on instead.  The end isn’t a lie, really, but it’s not fair to provide such rousing redemption for a character so responsible for his own failings, and as conscious of his own need to change.  Bridges is above it.

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