Looking for Grace in All the Wrong Places
Bad Blake cannot ignore his impending death. At age 57, the country singer looks 20 years his senior, carrying a perpetual limp and stubborn cough. His conversation is punctuated by grunts and heaves, his word choice floridly vulgar. When we meet him he's arrived at the Spare Room Bowl in the middle of New Mexico, where his agent has booked him for the night. He gets out of his '78 Suburban—"Bess"—cursing God and his agent while emptying a jug of urine in the alley lot, belt buckle still undone. When the manager of the Spare Room kindly refuses to pick up Blake's tab at the bar, he heads to a motel, falling asleep watching porn and drinking McClure's, his favorite whiskey, to which he's been faithful all these years.
At once we know that the hero of Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper's debut film based on the 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb, is a tragicomic one. Finding sizable success years ago in the country music scene, Blake now has $10 to his name and a record label that's losing interest. Serial marriages and an estranged son have left the former legend rootless, carried on only by enclaves of fans and a long-suffering agent. A tragicomic hero needs an ironic thread running through his life: Blake's is his breezy ability to write poignant songs, which are recorded by a younger artist Blake mentored, and performed in sold-out venues to foot-stomping acclaim. "I used to be somebody / now I am somebody else," Blake sings from the bowling alley's makeshift stage, in one of the film's several concert scenes; "who I'll be tomorrow is anybody's guess." These musical performances offer us Blake distilled down to his most honest, likeable self, and reveal how deeply Crazy Heart draws from the tropes of country music. Cooper's love for "real country" (think the grizzled great-uncle of today's Nashville-bred talent) led him to recruit Americana songwriter-producer T-Bone Burnett and the late guitarist Stephen Bruton for the score. Burnett and Bruton give us twangy guitar leads, steady drums, and wry, rueful lyrics, deliciously bittersweet.
There are moments when it seems that Crazy Heart could easily veer into Urban Cowboy territory—and some critics think it does, to a fatal degree. They are wrong. Part of the film's charm is its self-awareness, its playful use of well-worn conventions. This is signaled to us at the outset by the very name of the protagonist, "Bad" Blake. But above all, it's Jeff Bridges' seemingly effortless performance that keeps the film on track, avoiding maudlin kitsch without robbing the story of its emotional punch. The seasoned actor brings his sly smile and laid-back swagger from The Big Lebowski to a role that might have been written exclusively for him. Bridges has dug so deep into Blake's whiskey-drenched psyche that we wonder what Blake was up to before this two-hour foray into his life, and what he'll be doing after. "One of the ways I prepare for a part is to think about what I put in my body," Bridges said this winter, after winning an Oscar for best male lead. "So I would definitely have that second drink the night before. A little hangy would work for the role." Hangy works, and Bridges' own musical abilities don't hurt.
Honky-tonk fantasy is also staved off by a somewhat surprising but properly complex romance between Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who, in her most mature role yet, plays a single mom with her own complicated past. A small-town reporter set up to interview Blake by her uncle, Jean Craddock knows and loves real country, and she gets a bit giddy in Blake's presence (though not weak-kneed and silly like his over-age groupies). A couple decades younger than Blake, Craddock is an upending presence in his life. Their interview quickly turns from his stardom to his four marriages, his childhood, and his son, a topic that ends the interview abruptly. The two pick up their conversation that night after Blake's show, this time sharing a worn loveseat in Blake's hotel room, sipping whiskey. Craddock blushes and grins at Blake's come-on ("I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look"), but she doesn't return his sloppy lean-in kiss, rushing off to pick up her four-year-old son. We watch her protective wall go up, sensing the mess of getting involved with a mess like Blake.
But get involved they do, as Crazy Heart becomes less about country music than about the trouble with falling for a drunk. How Blake maneuvers past Craddock's walls is a bit puzzling. "Blake stinks. He sweats. He vomits," noted one online dissenter to The New York Times' glowing review. "What does a bright, attractive young journalist see in this aging, boozy, self-destructive loser beyond maybe a one-night romp?" Indeed, their romp quickly turns into Blake visiting Jean and her son, Buddy, in their Santa Fe bungalow, Blake teaching Buddy paper football and the art of fixing biscuits. "He's not around men much. I worry about that sometimes," Jean says. But we're left wondering why, out of all men, she would choose Blake as the positive male role model. Their next interaction is Jean wheeling a wheel-chaired Blake out of the hospital after he falls asleep and crashes at Bess's wheel. "The kinds of stuff we're talking here—emphysema, heart failure, cancer, an extremely good chance of a stroke—are gonna kill you," says the doctor squarely, news Blake responds to like he's learned of an impending bunion. "Let's not kid ourselves about this one," the doctor concludes: "You're an alcoholic."
This is the first time Crazy Heart mentions the disease—alcoholism—yet it takes center stage during the film's last act, as Blake unsuccessfully juggles his addiction and being in Jean and Buddy's life. An afternoon spent babysitting Buddy leaves Blake winded and dashing to the bathroom to sneak shots. "I don't want [alcohol] around Buddy, that much I know. It's like living with a rattlesnake," Jean lectures, recoiling from Blake's breath. Yet through all of this, we pity him for being a rattlesnake with the best intentions—a lovable drunk, not insane or abusive. An especially wrenching scene when he loses track of Buddy in a mall inspires more empathy for Blake than for the boy. Wheezing and limping toward a security guard, Blake fumbles to describe the boy's clothing ("I can't remember") but is able to recall his last whereabouts ("in a bar"). The event marks Blake's descent to rock bottom; truth be told, we've seen it coming since we met him.
"Rock bottom," of course, is drawn from the parlance of alcoholic recovery narratives, and Crazy Heart follows the familiar narrative arc at every step. There's the moment when the addict realizes his life has become unmanageable; the accountability partner (played by Robert Duvall) who takes him to detox; the making amends with people the addict has hurt. We hear, "My name is __, I'm an alcoholic …" more than once. Some critics have called Blake's recovery too conventional and easy; it's true, he comes out of detox writing songs about guardian angels and reclaiming his (comically unfashionable) birth name, with nary the repeated relapses and depression that usually mark recovery. Most alcoholics never stop drinking, even with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement and its enormous cultural influence; most alcoholics die from alcohol-related accidents or disease.
I think the reason Crazy Heart is such a compelling, emotionally resonant film, beyond its stellar lead performances, is the personal conversion at its heart: the lost/found, blind/seeing dynamic that runs through testimonials at aa meetings all the way down to that movement's Christian roots. We know how dire Blake's situation is; he's addicted to all the wrong things and, save a miracle, will be until it kills him. Detox "woke me up," Blake tells Jean—herself a sort of prevenient grace in his life—and his words echo those of the brand-new believer (though Crazy Heart mostly leaves God out). When he comes out of recovery writing a new song on his porch at the end of a good, hard day of housecleaning and yardwork, we rejoice that Blake can now enjoy these simple graces, these gifts that are best received sober.
"How privileged we are," AA co-founder Bill Wilson once told his fellow addicts, "to understand so well the divine paradox that strength rises from weakness; that humiliation goes before resurrection; that pain is not only the price but the very touchstone of spiritual rebirth." Pain is also the price and touchstone of a really good country song, and this film mines pain's treasures and makes them shine.
Katelyn Beaty is an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments